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The College Campus: A Public Health Perspective

Health: Science Society and Policy (HSSP) is a popular major at Brandeis, but even those students who study health lose sight of their own well-being. Late teens and early twenty-somethings are usually the image of health: youthful and in their prime of life. So if people like you and me are the pictures of this fiercely pursued state, I have one question: What is health? If our age defines our health, then it is defined as a lack of wrinkles and gray hair. Any HSSP major can tell you that this isn’t the case. More strictly, health is a state of physical, mental and social well-being, not just an absence of illness or old age.

The idea that college students are the depiction of health is actually a little befuddling because despite postgraduate fears, a college campus can be one of the most stressful manic-producing and neurotic-filled environments. Actually, according to an Associated Press Mental Health Poll from 2009, 80% of students report experiencing stress on a daily basis.

Consider the obvious, academic stress a little more deeply. It entails more than just a looming exam or paper deadline. Students, sitting together in lecture halls, tend to be competitors and, unknowingly, inciters of an overwhelming stress. It’s a collegiate norm to pursue achievement and therefore create a culture of expectation among peers as a by-product. Unfortunately, that pressure to excel is not limited to the campus. The source of stress can originate with parents or family and friends from back home. More importantly, the worst and most common stem of pressure comes from an internal place, in each of us.

Anxiety should be an indicator of how important the pursuit of success is to us, but the desire to do well leads to stress other than that of academic origin. College students pursue internships, extracurriculars and a host of other time-consuming activities in order to increase their attractiveness on the job market. Essentially, 22-year-olds are young adults trying to find their footing in what they believe to be the grown-up world. So they think a little too much about the aspects associated with being an adult, like living on their own and money.

Therefore, on top of academic stress, the transition from family support to independence, and the financial burden attached to a two to four-year experience can create a hostile home, where other stressors seems to lurk at every turn, in the laundry room or even in the form of a roommate. The relationships we make in college with friends, professors and significant others have lasting impressions that add to the rocky terrain of being a college student.

Stress is everywhere, but does that matter? American culture almost exclusively views health in terms of a biomedical approach, the concept that illness can be prevented and treated using our knowledge of anatomy, physiology and biology, or in other words, dealing with the body. Most students know this is not the case. Health is holistic, and as regarded in the field of health psychology can include social and psychological factors in addition to the biological ones. Not so surprisingly, there are myriad risky behaviors embraced in such a domain, either as a result of these incredible levels of stress or unfavorable circumstances that enhance the influence of stress.

Sleep deprivation, binge drinking, eating disorders, bullying, suicide (a leading cause of death for the college-age population, according to the National Center for Health Statistics’ Vital Statistics Report) and risky sexual behavior are all terms that have been associated with headlines of stories depicting inhabitants of a college campus. This is a rather extreme range, but all of these are very real matters of concern in this population.

These are not statements of observation but issues that are based on undoubtedly common opinion. For example, 89% of college students report poor sleep, says the Journal of American College Health. A lack of sleep can obviously affect energy and compromises one’s immune system. It also strongly affects one’s mood and even negatively influences how an individual evaluates oneself. Another fact that is difficult to dispute is that four out of five college students drink regularly and half of those who drink partake in binge drinking according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an excessive consumption in a short amount of time. The impulse to drink away worries at the end of the week seems to be a natural inclination in college culture. It is such a uniform belief that students encourage each other with misleading conceptualizations of drinking, like “You’re not an alcoholic until you graduate.” Though often an act of social bonding, drinking can become a caustic outlet for strong emotions and stress, as well as a way to fit in or compensate for a lack of self-esteem.

Stress is overwhelming and can make people feel as if they are struggling just to remain afloat. The resulting need to feel in control is a possible explanation of eating disorders and aggressive attitudes like bullying. Basically, college is a setting where stress thrives and nurtures the acquirement of worrisome behaviors as a consequence.

The competition and great fervor of the college experience does not look to be slowing down any time in the near future. Epidemiologists and other health professionals are constantly looking to limit illness and educate the masses in order to prevent health issues. I believe there are plenty of said issues and illness originating in the college environment. A college campus is made up of residence halls, lecture halls, dining halls and a variety of other facilities. With the quality of these matters aside, it’s how we act and why that is a concern of public health that is unique to the population, residing on a college-campus.

Of course these issues exist in other populations, but not nearly as high in concentration. The fact of the matter is that a college campus is a unique socially constructed microcosm made up of a narrow age range with very specific circumstances that could make the experience of higher education an accidental site of social experiment. This is not just a concern for those who have chosen a discipline in health. Every student has to take a look at the decisions they are making and how it affects their well-being. Whether it is physically apparent or not, there are public health issues prevalent on college campuses today.

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