New Survey Identifies Health Issues Affecting College Students and Academic Success

December 15, 2015

Boynton Health Service of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities (UMTC) today released the 2015 College Student Health Surveyidentifying health and health-related behaviors affecting college students and their academic success. The survey found more students have access to health insurance, fewer use tobacco and high-risk drinking rates continue to drop—although it remains a problem. Mental health continues to be the number one public health issue on campus, and there has been an increase in the number of women who reported they have been a victim of sexual assault.

“University of Minnesota students demonstrated they have the talent to be successful here. When they aren’t successful, it is often because of a variety of issues that may impact them: mental health problems, alcohol use, illness, injuries or other challenges life brings them,” said Danita Brown Young, Vice Provost for Student Affairs and Dean of Students. “The College Student Health Survey helps us understand how we can make the University of Minnesota a healthy environment for all students. In the Office of Student Affairs, we are here to help students connect, engage, and grow both intellectually and in their personal lives, which benefits everyone in our community.”

“There are more students currently enrolled in postsecondary education than in high school at this time, so we have an opportunity to make a positive influence on the health patterns they form in college that could affect the rest of their lives,” said Dave Golden, Director of Public Health and Communications at Boynton Health Service and a co-investigator of the survey.

Health Insurance Status
The rate of uninsured students dropped to its lowest level since the survey began tracking rates in 1985. In 2015, less than 1 percent (0.9) lacked insurance, down from 15 percent in 2007.  With this drop, fewer students reported lack of health insurance as a stressor in their lives (in 2015, lack of insurance ranked 11-13, down from 9th in 2007).

Mental Health
The survey found more students diagnosed with a mental health condition in their lifetime. In 2015, 33 percent of students reported a mental health diagnosis in their lifetime, up from 25 percent in 2007. Students reporting two or more mental health conditions was 23 percent. Mental health remains a significant public health issue on college campuses because of the link between poor mental health and academic success. Students diagnosed with mental health conditions report more days of the month those mental health factors impact their ability to function. Furthermore, they experience higher rates of lack of sleep and higher rates of risky behaviors such as tobacco use, marijuana use, high-risk drinking and other health issues.
On the rise but consistent with past surveys, anxiety (22 percent lifetime diagnosis) and depression (21 percent lifetime diagnosis) are the most frequently reported mental health conditions. A new question added to the 2015 survey found that 2 percent of students reported using a mental health crisis line in the past two months.
The survey asks a series of questions related to life stressors. Students who experienced three or more stressors in the last year have higher rates of tobacco and marijuana use, engage in high-risk drinking and have higher credit card debt compared to students who experienced fewer stressors. These students also have lower GPAs.

More than one-third (35 percent) of students report they are unable to fully manage their stress level. This is an important indicator because it appears there is a relationship between unmanaged stress levels and higher rates of diagnosis for acute conditions as well as mental health conditions. For example, 17 percent of students with unmanaged stress levels report being diagnosed with anxiety within the last year compared to only 7 percent of students with managed stress levels reporting the same diagnosis.
“One of our priorities is educating and helping students learn how to manage stress,” said Gary Christenson, M.D., Boynton’s Chief Medical Officer. “Boynton Health Service and other University partners collaborate on a number of initiatives to build these skills among our students, because it’s not just about eliminating stress in our lives but learning to manage it.”
New Stressor Identified
Food insecurities are related to poor nutrition and considered to be a chronic stressor and social determinant of health. For the first time, in 2015 students were asked if they worried their food would run out before they had money to buy more. Nearly a quarter (22 percent) of undergraduate students answered yes to this question. Because this is the first time a question like this been asked in a comprehensive college health survey, further analysis is needed to determine the implications of food insecurities among students. Contributing factors could include lack of money, inability to access affordable food (for example buying food at a grocery store, convenience store or fast food restaurant), mental health issues or difficulties managing finances.
“This is very preliminary data but there appears to be a group of undergraduate students who report some level of food insecurity and this is causing significant stress in their lives. These data figures are strong justification for expanding our understanding of the problem in order to search for solutions,” Golden said.
Sexual Health
While popular culture, including stories about “hooking up,” might create the perception that college students are promiscuous, the survey found that more than three in four (79 percent) students had zero or one partner in the past year. The majority who were sexually active (77 percent) say their most recent sexual partner was either a fiancé, spouse or exclusive dating partner.
Tobacco, Alcohol and Drug Use
Although high-risk drinking declined to 34 percent in 2015 from 43 percent in 2001, the number represents about 13,000 students who binge drink, defined as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in a single sitting within the past two weeks. There is a strong association between high-risk drinking and negative consequences, including lower GPA, missing class and performing poorly on a test or project.

One positive change is the number of students who reported they would call 911 if someone passed out due to alcohol or drug use: 65 percent said they would be “very likely” to call for emergency assistance.
“The number of students willing to call for help might be related to our campus-wide efforts to encourage students to use 911, as well as the Medical Amnesty law which provides immunity to under-age students who call for emergency assistance,” Golden said. “While binge drinking is going down, we cannot let up on comprehensive efforts to further decrease the rate of high-risk drinking.”
Over the years, marijuana use has fluctuated, from a high of 19 percent in 2001 to 14 percent in 2007. Current marijuana use (use within the last month) for students between 18 and 24 years is 17 percent.  Younger students (18-24) have higher rates of marijuana use than students 25 and older.

Current tobacco use among students is 13 percent, down significantly from 42 percent in 1998. The University implemented a tobacco-free campus policy in 2014.

Sexual Assault
About one in three (32 percent) female students reported experiencing sexual assault within their lifetime. This is an increase over previous surveys, including a 2013 survey in which 22 percent reported sexual assault in their lifetime.

“We don’t know if this reflects an actual increase in sexual assault or if this is related to increased awareness and knowledge of what constitutes sexual assault, and the ability of survivors to name and report sexual assault,” said Katie Eichele, M.S., Director of The Aurora Center, the University’s advocacy and education center for issues of sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking.
Boynton’s survey findings are consistent with a recent Association of American Universities survey on sexual assault and sexual misconduct released last September.
Analysis of the data shows a link between sexual assault and mental health, particularly higher rates (38 percent) of depression than students who did not experience sexual assault (14 percent).

About the College Student Health Survey
The 2015 College Student Health Survey measures eight key areas: Health insurance and health care utilization, mental health, alcohol andother drug use, tobacco use, personal safety, financial health, nutrition and physical activity, and sexual health. Boynton Health Service has conducted the survey since 1995. The 2015 survey randomly selected 5,964 University of Minnesota Twin Cities students via email; 2,023 students (34 percent) completed the survey.

About Boynton Health Service
Boynton Health Service, a unit of the University of Minnesota’s Office of Student Affairs, is a nationally recognized leader in college health, providing comprehensive health care to students, faculty, staff and the community at Minneapolis and St. Paul campus locations. Boynton supports student-led health promotion in the areas of sexual health, tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, nutrition and stress management; and advocates for community-based public health initiatives. Learn more at

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