Students in Need, Schools at the Ready: Substance Abuse, Depression, and Eating Disorders Are Ever-Present Problems on College and University Campuses. but Higher Ed Leaders Are on the Case

University Business, July 2008 | Go to article overview
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Students in Need, Schools at the Ready: Substance Abuse, Depression, and Eating Disorders Are Ever-Present Problems on College and University Campuses. but Higher Ed Leaders Are on the Case


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FROM NEEDING TO ABSORB COMPLICATED TEXTBOOK explanations to having three papers due the same week, the business of learning at the college level is challenging in a multitude of ways. Add the social issues and independent living aspects of college life, and it's not surprising that many students fare stressed, depressed, and in need of mental health help. Here's a closer look at three student health issues affecting campuses nationwide--and what's being done by school leaders to address them.

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A Different Kind of INTERVENTION

Armed with new data, campus leaders are taking a more broad-based approach to handling substance-abuse issues.

LONG BEFORE HE BECAME PRESIDENT OF Frostburg State University (Md.), Jonathan C. Gibralter was teaching elsewhere. The high level of student alcohol abuse compelled him and his wife who ran the alcohol and drug prevention program there--to personally urge the president to take action. "If you don't do something about this," Gibralter's wife said, "somebody's going to die."

"About two weeks later, in an off-campus apartment, two kids were under the influence, and one pulled out a knife and cut the other kid, and he died," Gibralter says. A stronger stance from the president and more institutional programming about alcohol and other drugs might have prevented the tragedy, he adds.

That incident remained in Gibralter's mind as he progressed in his career. When he attained the presidency at Frostburg--where students had a reputation as hard partiers he began his tenure with a firm pronouncement, saying, "I'm not putting up with this. I'm not accepting that it's part of our culture." In the student newspaper, he announced a "zero tolerance" policy for the use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs on campus. "Some of the students didn't like it. A lot of students thanked me," he recalls.

Gibralter's public stand places him in a growing but still small minority of university presidents who openly acknowledge that substance-abuse issues are present on campus. Progressive colleges and universities are shifting their primary efforts from individual users to the entire campus community and emphasizing to students that a fulfilling collegiate experience can be had without substance abuse.

A Perpetual Problem

The National Institute on Drug Abuse's report Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2006 reports that despite considerable attempts to raise awareness over the last several years, the use of alcohol by college students has remained fairly steady. As Gibralter points out, the negative consequences continue to be numerous: 1,700 alcohol-related deaths and nearly 600,000 injuries annually, almost 70,000 assaults in which alcohol plays a role, and such academic setbacks as missed classes, failing grades, and flunking out for an estimated 25 percent of students.

Equally troubling, according to data collected by the alcohol-prevention firm Outside the Classroom, while binge drinking levels have stayed essentially the same, female drinking has increased dramatically, reaching rates equal to those of men.

The other noteworthy trend, according to both data and campus observers, is that while the use of illicit drugs has begun to fall, prescription drugs are being misused in larger numbers. Opioids such as OxyContin and Vicodin, depressants such as Valium and Xanax, and stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall are easily obtained online or from parents or friends and can become problematic swiftly.

"Young people get them prescribed--they have their tonsils out, they have a surgery, they break an arm--and then they get addicted to them very quickly," says Sharon Guck, coordinator of the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program at Western Connecticut State University. "Others try them illegally right from the beginning."

The powerful stimulant properties of newer prescription medications have made them very attractive to stressed-out, overscheduled students, who believe that because they have been prescribed by a physician, they must be safe never mind that the prescriptions often aren't even theirs to begin with.

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Students in Need, Schools at the Ready: Substance Abuse, Depression, and Eating Disorders Are Ever-Present Problems on College and University Campuses. but Higher Ed Leaders Are on the Case
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