Students report high anxiety, low drug use, risky sex

Analyzing the biggest-ever Canadian student health survey
Acadia University residence students prepare for a night on the town (Jessica Darmanin)

The results of the biggest-ever study of Canadian post-secondary student health show that most students are stressed, anxious and drink alcohol, but they’re not having nearly as much sex or doing as many drugs as one might expect.

Those are the conclusions that jump out from the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services report released today. A total of 34,039 students from 32 schools filled out the National College Health Assessment II Spring 2013, which is the basis of the report. The response rate was 20 per cent.

Drinking is students’ most common vice. In the previous 30 days, 71 per cent of students reported drinking alcohol at least once. The vast majority avoided other drugs: only 12 per cent smoked a cigarette, 16 per cent used marijuana and 11 per cent consumed other drugs. That was despite eight in 10 students “perceiving” that the “typical student” at their school had used marijuana and cigarettes.

Those who did drink in the previous 12 months reported negative consequences. Forty per cent did something they regretted, 31 per cent forgot where they were or what they did, 20 per cent were physically injured, two per cent had run-ins with police and two per cent had sex without consent.

Speaking of sex, students certainly weren’t as promiscuous as they sound when bragging on Facebook. Almost one-third (32 per cent) had no sexual partners (vaginal, oral or anal) in the previous 12 months. Nearly half (46 per cent) only had one. Just eight per cent had four or more.

What’s worrisome, however, is that only half of those who had vaginal sex in the previous month reported using protection most or all of the time. For anal intercourse, the number was even scarier, just 32 per cent.

It’s perhaps surprising then that only one in 100 reported being diagnosed or treated for Chlamydia and one in 500 was diagnosed or treated for HIV in the same 12 months.

Student diets are dismal too. Only 13 per cent got their recommended five-plus servings of vegetables per day. Nearly half reported just one or two. Four per cent reported eating none.

And less than half of students—45 per cent—reported enough physical activity to meet the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association guidelines.

The biggest health problem on campus, however, remains mental health. Nearly nine in 10 reported that in the past 12 months they “felt overwhelmed by all they had to do,” while 57 per cent “felt overwhelming anxiety,” and 38 per cent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.” Nearly 10 per cent said they had “seriously considered suicide” and one per cent had attempted suicide.

Many said their academic performance was impacted by stress (39 per cent), anxiety (28 per cent), sleep difficulties, (27 per cent) and depression (17 per cent), while large numbers were diagnosed or treated by professionals for anxiety (12 per cent) and depression (10 per cent).