Science Summary

Dana Humphrey / January 11, 2019

1. Non-Medical Use of Prescription Drugs Remains an Issue
According to the 2018 College Prescription Drug Study, a multi-institutional survey of undergraduate, graduate and professional students that examined the non-medical use of prescription drugs led by researchers at The Ohio State University, almost 16 percent of college students say they misuse prescription stimulants, primarily to study or improve their grades. The survey of 19,539 US undergraduate, graduate and professional students from 25 institutions also found that more than 9 percent of students said they had misused pain medications which students use most often to get high or relieve pain. The percentage was roughly the same for students who reported non-medical use of sedatives, which survey respondents reported using most often for sleep or anxiety relief. A majority of students who misuse prescription drugs – including 79 percent of stimulant users, 57 percent of sedative users and 51 percent of pain medication users – said they obtained the drugs from friends. And the study found that 21 percent of students with a prescription for stimulant medication had given it to a friend or peer in the previous 12 months. Students report that prescription drugs are easy to obtain; 28 percent said it’s somewhat or very easy to obtain stimulants, and 20 percent said it’s somewhat or very easy to obtain sedatives.

2. Racism, Violence and Sexual Assault Contributing to Mental Health Issues
New research found that racism, violence and sexual assault are key contributors to mental health challenges for students. The researchers, Fay Cobb Payton, Lynette Kvasny Yarger, and Anthony Pinter, used text mining techniques to analyze 165 references published between 2010 and 2015 related to mental health among college students. The articles included peer-reviewed research literature, foundation reports, and media stories. The authors wrote, “Uncovering the most salient themes articulated in current news and literature reports can better enable higher education institutions to provide health services to its students.” Two themes revealed in the analysis - increasing demand for student services provided by campus counseling centers and the increased mental health risks faced by racial and ethnic minorities - dominated the discourse. The authors noted that while institutions are devoting more, innovative resources to respond to the growing number students who experience mental health concerns, there is a need to focus on proactive approaches to mitigate the causes, particularly violence and sexual assault. The research highlighted the need for additional mental health services and outlined some ways that mobile technologies may be able to help address these needs.

3. Increasing rates of mental health conditions
According to a new study published in the Journal of American College Health, university students in the US are showing increasingly higher rates of diagnosis for a range of mental health conditions. Using data from the National College Health Assessment, consisting of more than 450,000 undergraduate students, researchers found a significant increase in the diagnosis and treatment for eight of the 12 mental health conditions examined between 2009 and 2015, with the largest increases in anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Treatment and diagnosis of anxiety increased by 5.6 percent over the study period, closely followed by depression (3.2 percent) and panic attacks (2.8 percent). Anxiety is now the most common mental health concern among university students in the U.S., affecting almost 15 percent of students nationally. The study’s authors suggest that the increase in mental health diagnosis and treatment reflects a combination of deteriorating mental health and increased willingness to seek help, driven by reduced stigma surrounding mental health and greater awareness of campus services. According to the authors, “understanding and tracking counseling service utilization is important as students who have contact with counseling centers say that utilizing services helped their academic performance and that they were more likely to remain enrolled at the institution.” The study authors noted that universities should work to create a culture that is supportive of mental health and address contributing factors. To that end, the researchers suggest identifying mental health as a community problem that is shared by all members of the institution, educating and encouraging everyone in the community to recognize signs of students’ distress, and providing increased awareness about campus resources.

4. Amnesty Policies Encourage Students to Seek Help in Alcohol-related Incidents
Many universities have adopted medical amnesty policies, which protect students seeking medical treatment for alcohol-related emergencies from disciplinary action, in order to encourage students and bystanders to seek emergency care. A new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health suggests that these policies have been successful in prompting college students to call for help before they or their peers become seriously ill. After a medical amnesty policy was implemented at a University, the average daily number of alcohol-related calls to the school’s emergency medical services agency went up, and calls requiring advanced life support services fell by nearly 60 percent. In addition, calls for alcohol-related emergencies were made earlier in the evening, suggesting students were seeking help when the level of intoxication was less severe. The authors wrote that the amnesty program was also used by administrators “to identify at-risk students and engage them in behavioral therapy, which has been shown to decrease risky drinking behaviors.” In a separate study published this year, researchers found that implementing a medical amnesty policy did not increase drinking, overall alcohol consumption, or medical consequences.

5. Sex Ed Reduces Risk of Sexual Assault
According to new research, students who receive sexuality education, including refusal skills training, during high school are at lower risk of experiencing sexual assault during college. The study, published in PLOS ONE, the publication from Columbia University's Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) project, showed that students who received refusal skills training also received other forms of sexual education, including instruction about methods of birth control and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. Students who received abstinence-only instruction did not show significantly reduced experiences of campus sexual assault. The researchers surveyed 1,671 students from Columbia University and Barnard College in the spring of 2016, and conducted in-depth interviews with 151 undergraduate students. They also found that multiple factors experienced prior to college were associated with students’ experience of penetrative sexual assault during college, including unwanted sexual contact before college (for women), adverse child experiences such as physical abuse, ‘hooking up’ in high school, and initiation of sex and alcohol or drug use before age 18. John Santelli, MD, the article’s lead author and pediatrician and professor of Population and Family Health at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, says that the protective impact of refusal skills-based sexuality education underlines the importance of complementing campus-based prevention efforts with earlier education. According to Santelli, “We need to start sexuality education earlier. It’s time for a life-course approach to sexual assault prevention, which means teaching young people - before they get to college - about healthy and unhealthy sexual relationships, how to say no to unwanted sex, and how to say yes to wanted sexual relationships.”