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.

Almost 40 percent of Harvard students abstained from sex in the past year, and of those that have had sex, almost all of them have had only one or two partners.

The survey also showed that students at Harvard frequently do not get their health information from sources that they themselves consider believable. While television falls at the very bottom of believability, about a third of students get their health information from TV-more than the 28.9 percent of students receiving information from what students deem the most believable source, college health educators.

"I think we have a lot of work to do about getting our messages across about good health, physical activity and nutrition," Rosenthal said. "I think we're doing better than other schools in many issues. However, that doesn't excuse us from trying to do better. We're trying to share this with the faculty and with the students."

Mental health results showed a high number of students feel "overwhelmed" or "intense sadness" frequently. Nearly a fifth of Harvard students reported feeling "intense sadness" 11 or more times-the highest possible answer-in the last school year.

In the same vein, the most popular response to feeling "overwhelmed" in the past school year was 11 or more times, at 35.4 percent.

Fatigue was also shown to be a factor, with a majority of students reporting that more than half of mornings they wake up not feeling rested.

A quarter of students report feeling "slightly overweight" and 36.8 percent are attempting to shed pounds.

UHS officials said they plan to take the survey's results into consideration in their student care programs in the future.