Well, well… Students’ health tops University’s concerns
The undergraduate experience
The seventh and final in an occasional series
By Dan Heuchert
Every fall, when thousands of parents drop off their young scholars at the University, they worry. Can their child compete in the classroom? Will they get along with their roommates? Will they add bleach to the colored laundry?
But most of all, will they be OK?
“Wellness” is one of the six major organizing values of the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, and perhaps none of the other five draws more attention and effort than securing the physical and emotional well-being of students.
Education efforts: Peers know best
Question: How do you convey accurate health information to U.Va. students without trotting a middle-aged doctor in a white coat onto the stage at Newcomb Hall Theater?
Answer: Use the students themselves.
“Peers feel more comfortable talking with other peers who are educated than with some 50-year-old clinician talking about safe-sex options,” said Tara Schuster of the Office of Health Promotion, who trains and coordinates the Peer Health Educators.
U.Va.’s 45 student health educators are selected by a competitive application process and trained in a three-credit course each fall. Once trained, they fan out to residence halls, Greek houses and any other groups that invite them to talk about alcohol and drug abuse, nutrition, women’s and men’s health issues, mental health and stress management, Schuster said.
Additionally, they provide one-on-one patient counseling to women before their first gynecological exams and to students to discuss contraceptive options, sexually transmitted infections, men’s health, substance abuse and mental health — perhaps the only peer program in the country that offers such services, Schuster said.
There are several other peer health groups, including the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Team and the Student Athlete Mentors, both trained by the University’s Center for Alcohol and Substance Education.
“I don’t pretend to know everything,” said fourth-year Peer Health Educator Erica Caruso. “Being honest with a peer/patient and saying, ‘I don’t know for sure, but I can look it up or get you more information on that topic’ gives a person a lot of credit for being honest and not just making up random nonsense. It lets them know that what you do know is very likely accurate, because you’re willing to admit what you don’t know or aren’t sure of.”
Alcohol: The universal problem
For as long as teens have left their parents’ homes and headed off to the social frontier of college, alcohol abuse has been a headache for those
entrusted with their care.
“If there is any one public health issue that I am concerned about, it is alcohol use and abuse by students,” said Dr. James C. Turner, executive director of Student Health.
Preaching abstention is unrealistic, he admitted. But teaching students about alcohol’s moderate, responsible use is proving more beneficial.
U.Va. is among the national leaders in the “social norms marketing” approach, which it officially adopted in 1998.
“Students are healthier than they think they are, and than others think they are,” said Susan Bruce, director of the Center for Alcohol and Substance Education. “We use data to market that message back to them.”
Trained peers present real data on drinking behavior to groups, including first-year dorms, varsity teams and Greek houses. One sample fact: On a weekend night, students on average consume 3.7 drinks.
That kind of data reassures those who choose not to drink, or to drink less, she said. “And what it really does is to challenge the highest-risk drinkers, because they think that what they are doing is the norm,” Bruce said.
This year, Student Health began handing out 20,000 pocket-sized “BAC cards” —males and females get different versions — with charts predicting blood-alcohol concentration levels based upon a drinker’s weight and the number of drinks consumed during one-, three- and five-hour spans (a BAC of .08 is legally drunk). The charts are color-coded — blue for BACs in the 0.02 to 0.06 range, orange for 0.07 to 0.20, and red for anything above — and urge their bearers to “keep to the blue level.”
“I’ve been involved in taking care of college students for 20 years, and I have never seen pieces of health information that have been better received by students,” Turner said. “If we can put something in their hands that helps them use alcohol more safely and more responsibly, we can have an impact.”
The message already may be proving effective. A student health survey finds that all 17 consequences of alcohol abuse monitored — including missed classes, driving under the influence, participating in unprotected sex, fighting, police encounters and emergency-room visits — have declined during the past five years.
“We should be celebrating these numbers,” Turner said, “but we tend to get focused on anecdotes.”
Mental health issues on the rise
Five years ago, a few more than two dozen U.Va. students were hospitalized for psychological issues. This year, that number is around 50.
“We’re seeing many more students who are coming to the University with pre-existing conditions, and we’re seeing more students who do encounter difficulties presenting with more acute and more complex psychological problems,” said Russ Federman, director of U.Va.’s Counseling and Psychological Services.
Several factors are at work, he said. Primary care doctors are getting better at recognizing mental health problems in all patients, and at an earlier age. Improved drugs allow them better function — to the extent that more students with mental health issues are being admitted to U.Va. Once here, though, the stresses of college life and a less-structured therapeutic regimen may cause a relapse. Finally, there is less stigma surrounding mental health treatment, so more students are seeking help.
CAPS sees between 1,500 and 1,600 students a year, and has about 8,300 different “contacts,” he said. “Our staff is working to capacity.”
Three other organizations also provide some level of counseling, including the Mary D. Ainsworth Psychological Clinic in the Department of Psychology, the Center for Clinical Psychological Services in the Curry School of Education, and the Women’s Center’s Counseling Services.
“A lot of our efforts are focused on stabilization, gaining a minimal level of function and adequacy,” Federman said. “We don’t try to do the whole piece of work. We ask ourselves what this person minimally needs now to have an adequate level of functioning.”
When all else fails …
The Elson Student Health Center — one of only 35 student health centers nationwide to be accredited by the Joint Commission on Health-Care Organizations — gets 44,000 visits a year, and Turner estimates that the center encounters 85 percent to 90 percent of undergrads sometime during their four years.
This year was a particularly heavy one for the flu. The vaccine shortage meant that Student Health only gave between 350 and 400 flu shots to those in the highest-risk categories, compared to the usual 4,000 or more. The result was a record 470 cases of the flu, peaking seven days after students returned for the spring semester.
One other student health pitfall on the rise: snowboard injuries, including head trauma and wrist fractures, Turner said. “We’re urging people to wear helmets and wrist guards.”
Just one more thing for parents to worry about in August…
Strong Bodies; Stronger Minds
If there really was one collective student body, chances are that U.Va.’s would be physically fit.
A whopping 94 percent of U.Va. undergraduates participate in intramural sports or use the University’s recreational facilities, which include four
indoor recreation centers, said Mark Fletcher, director of Intramural and Recreational Sports. “That’s clearly one of the highest [participation percentages] in the country,” he said.
Others have noticed. Newsweek magazine named U.Va. “Hottest for Fitness” in a November 2004 issue, and the University’s flagship Aquatic and Fitness Center was recently honored with an Outstanding Sports Facility Award from the National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association.
IM-Rec’s facilities, open 110 hours per week, draw 6,000 visitors daily, and guests come at all hours of the day. The AFC even sees a steady flow of students during breaks, Fletcher said.
Some 2,000 students participate in 65 club sports, which exist between the varsity and intramural levels. A recent boom in martial arts and dance clubs reflects the University’s increasingly diverse enrollment, he said.
When Fletcher arrived at the University in 1985, the IM-Rec program consisted mostly of teams of males competing against one another. Since then, IM-Rec has increased its fitness options — particularly with the 1996 opening of the AFC, with its pools, workout machines and group activity spaces. Now, IM-Rec’s fitness classes draw a crowd that is 97 percent female, he said.
A 2003 survey of 2,600 students at 16 colleges and universities found that the more often students worked out, the more satisfied they were with college life. In identifying “key determinants of college satisfaction and success,” recreational sports offerings outpolled internships, cultural activities, student clubs and organizations, study-abroad opportunities, and fraternities and sororities.
Surveyed students listed emotional well-being, stress reduction and mood elevation as the main benefits of exercise.
U.Va. students cornered at the AFC on a recent weekday afternoon agreed.
“If I didn’t come here, my day would feel incomplete,” said Dan McGowan, a graduate student in East Asian studies who visits the AFC five or six times a week. “When I’m studying later, it helps me focus.”
“It relieves stress and increases my mood,” agreed third-year student
Katherine Adams, a former high school athlete. “I just feel better and have more energy.”