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August 7, 2006

A University of Michigan Health Minute update on important health issues.

Health 101: College students need to take charge of their health care

University of Michigan family doctor offers tips about vaccinations, depression, and alcohol and food consumption

ANN ARBOR, MI – When young men and women head off to college, many will think about the excitement and anxiety of being away from home, kick-starting their adult lives, and smaller details such as buying books and finding their way around campus.


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It’s a safe bet that few will think about facing health care decisions on their own. But with the myriad issues they may face in college – from vaccinations to mental health to alcohol and food consumption – learning about their own health care is one of the most important tasks for college students to take on, says Thomas L. Schwenk, M.D., chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School.

“Going to college is a tremendous opportunity and a great time in a young person’s life,” he says. “It’s also a time when students, many of them for the first time, need to really think about their own health and becoming a health care consumer. It’s very important that they should be active and begin to be a little more assertive as they take charge of their health care.”

The issues faced by many students include vaccinations, depression and other mental health concerns, alcohol consumption, and food and nutrition.

Health Minute ImageVaccinations: Many colleges and universities now require a vaccination for meningococcal meningitis, a potentially fatal bacterial infection. Most also have forms for students to complete about their vaccination records, including a tetanus booster, a full and up-to-date series of measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations, and the hepatitis B series.

Depression: “We all know that this transition from home to college is a very turbulent time, but I don’t think it’s the movement to college per se that’s really the issue,” Schwenk says. “We just know that depression as a biologic disease is appearing at an earlier and earlier age. So, a disease we used to think of as striking in the 30s and 40s is now a disease of the teens and 20s.”

The main concern, he says, is the profound depression that can affect a student’s academic performance, social interests and ability to get up in the morning. Fortunately, most colleges and universities offer outreach and educational campaigns designed to help students with mental health issues and depression, he notes.

Alcohol: Schwenk says parents, roommates and individual students all can play a role in preventing over-consumption of alcohol. “I think parents have to think very carefully about how they approach this,” he says. “It can range from no discussion whatsoever, with the assumption that a student would not seek or drink alcohol – which is probably denial, but it might work – to a very explicit discussion and some clear guidelines about the more limited, moderate use of alcohol as opposed to binge drinking.”

Roommates and friends, he says, share some social responsibility – though no legal requirement – for confronting someone who is consuming too much alcohol. One option is to ask an older student or resident adviser to step in and discuss the potentially destructive consequences of such behavior, he says.

Of course, the ultimate responsibility lies with the student himself or herself. On a large scale, drinking by college students is shifting in some good ways and some bad, he says.

“The proportion of students who drink no alcohol has actually increased significantly,” he says, “but the proportion of students who binge drink has also increased significantly.”

Food and nutrition: The “Freshman 15” may be too simplistic, Schwenk says, but it is true that many students experience noticeable weight fluctuations during the first year at college. While a lot of the food offered to college students is high-quality and nutritious, its bounty and easy accessibility can cause problems for people not accustomed to regulating their own food consumption. In other words: Be careful at the cafeteria buffet line.

Another problem is the lack of activity. “A lot of students who were very active in high school are less likely to get involved in organized sports in college because of the high level of competition and intensity of college athletics,” Schwenk says. He suggests that students find new activities – walking across campus with friends, going to the campus gym – to remain active and help keep off extra pounds.

The 10 Leading Health Indicators of the Healthy Campus 2010 recommendations from the American College Health Association:

  • Physical activity
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Tobacco use
  • Substance abuse
  • Responsible sexual behavior
  • Mental health
  • Injury and violence
  • Environmental quality
  • Immunization
  • Access to health care

For more information, visit these Web sites:

Written by: Katie Gazella

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