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ISSUE 118 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/11/2005

Health survey reveals surprises: Statistics show drinking, drug numbers below national average

By Tiffany Ayres
News Editor

Friday, March 11, 2005

The results of the American College Health Association National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA), released by the St. Olaf administration Feb. 28, show a generally healthy student body at St. Olaf overall, but also hold a few surprises.

The survey, administered to students online last spring, addressed several areas of student health ranging from alcohol, tobacco and drug use to broken bones and allergy problems. The results for St. Olaf are based on an 18 percent response rate, or 544 students.

The results for alcohol consumption on campus show that 60 percent of students reported drinking at least once a month; only eight percent reported drinking on more than ten days a month. Compared with the 2003 national survey results, the latest available, St. Olaf is below the national average on alcohol use.

As one aspect of alcohol consumption, the ACHA-NCHA survey also looks at drinking behavior aside from questions related to a student’s amount of consumption.

From the survey, St. Olaf students show highly responsible drinking behavior: 95 percent usually use a designated driver, 76 percent keep track of the number of drinks consumed in a sitting and 50 percent avoid drinking games. The St. Olaf statistics in these areas are consistently higher than the national averages of 77 percent, 63 percent and 40 percent, respectively.

In the area of drug use, 10.6 percent of St. Olaf students reported they used marijuana at least once during the month prior to participating in the survey, which is six percent less than the national average.

Dean of Students Greg Kneser said that when presented with the results, he thought that the numbers related to alcohol use stayed pretty consistent with what was already known. However, the numbers relating to student perception of use surprised him.

The survey showed a large incongruity between perceived use of alcohol and marijuana on campus and the reported frequency of actual use. The student body believes that only 1.5 percent of their fellow classmates never use alcohol and that 17 percent drink daily, compared to the actual results showing almost 25 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively. With marijuana, the perception is that 40 percent of students never used and 5.2 use daily compared to the actual statistics of 75 and 0.9 percent.

"The numbers change the nature of the conversation with prospective students," Kneser said. "When they say they don’t drink and wonder if there’s still a place for them here, I can say that there are a thousand students just like them."

Kneser emphasized that with help from Health Services and the Counseling Center, many resources are used towards education and some measure of preventing risky behaviors. He pointed to the survey results as a sign that students are at least noticing the efforts and said the numbers were encouraging.

He also said that the survey provides answers to questions which the administration should know but did not previously have concrete numerical evidence to support. For example, he emphasized that two commonly held perceptions of St. Olaf are that there are high percentages of students with mental health problems and eating disorders. However, St. Olaf remains on track with the national averages in both areas.

"How St. Olaf matches up with the rest of the nation seems to show just how much perception is out of whack," Kneser said.

Another surprise, shared by Kneser and the Health Services office, lies in the area of stress and its negative effects on health. In terms of factors that carry a negative academic impact, 33 percent of students reported that stress is the biggest factor. Nurse Practitioner for Health Services Pam Tietz pointed out that the second and third biggest factors, cold and flu at 27 percent and sleep difficulties at 23 percent, are directly related to stress.

"It is interesting that all of the percentages in the double-digits are intertwined," Tietz said. "With the survey, students could pick more than one, but it would be very interesting to see what would happen if they could only pick one."

She then said that students tend not to maintain normal sleep schedules to begin with, and anxieties such as stress, relationship issues and depression prevent sleep. People become exhausted from lack of sleep and more prone to colds and flu.

"Back pain is another area that has a high percentage, but we see in here a lot that it tends to be a component of other problems like stress," Tietz said. According to the survey results, 48 percent of students report experiencing back pain. Tietz coaches the students who go to the Health Services office on posture to alleviate some of the discomfort. She also said that many students go to Health Services with ailments they think are physical but are mental or psychological.

Kneser expressed similar concern.

"There’s this idea that sleep issues are just a part of college," he said. "But the survey is showing us that it’s turning into a medical problem."

With the survey results in mind, possible plans for the future include devoting more resources and efforts to alleviate stress and to promote better "sleep hygiene."

Other statistics of interest from the ACHA-NCHA survey results include issues related to violence and sexual behavior. Almost seven percent of St. Olaf students reported being sexually touched against their will within the last school year, compared to 10 percent nationally. Also, within the last school year, 10 percent of St. Olaf students reported being in an emotionally abusive relationship, compared to over 13 percent nationally. In terms of sexual behavior, 13.3 percent of St. Olaf students reported having more than one sexual partner over the school year in question for the survey, compared to 25.3 percent nationally.

Kneser plans to present the survey findings across the country. He feels the survey is a helpful tool for the administration. "This [survey] tells us more about who [the students] are than anything else we’ve had," Kneser said.

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