Students' View of Campus Health Skewed

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Bryan J. Parno

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A University Health Services (UHS) survey released yesterday found that Harvard students perceive the behavior of their peers to be much more risky than it actually is, while a significant number of respondents claimed to have mental health problems and concerns about their weight.

The survey, which measured health risk behavior, sexual and nutritional and mental health concerns, and perceived norms, was conducted by the American College Health Association of colleges across the country last spring. Of the 6,684 Harvard students, 2,500 were sampled, with 905 surveys returned, a 36 percent return rate.

The survey revealed that students think that their peers are engaging in much more risky behavior than the students actually are. While students perceived that 98.8 percent of their peers had used alcohol in the last 30 days, the actual percentage was 72.4 percent.

The survey found similar results for use of cigarettes and cigars. Harvard students perceived that over half their peers had used marijuana in the last 30 days, whereas in reality the number was 12.2 percent.

"People always perceive things as worse than they are. When you come to Harvard, you ask 'What am I doing here?'" said UHS Director Dr. David S. Rosenthal `59. "We are trying to accentuate that the norms are not as students think... that going to a party for socialization rather than drinking is common."

Michael Hoyt, the coordinator of health promotion and outreach at UHS, said that people will "move towards the norm if they know that the norm is less risky behavior than they suspect."

"Other universities have had success with this approach of showing how perceived and actual norms differ. Northern Illinois and the University of Arizona pioneered this approach with alcohol use," he said.

The survey also showed that a significant portion of the Harvard student population regularly has unprotected sex. "Over 50 percent (of students) report mostly or always using a condom" for vaginal intercourse, the survey said, while just over 30 percent do so for anal sex and less than 1 percent do so for oral sex.