Education

Alcohol, marijuana, and cigarette use up at University of Iowa

More students report depression diagnoses and suicidal thoughts and actions

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette/file photo)
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette/file photo)

Alcohol, marijuana, and cigarette use is up among a sampling of University of Iowa students, as are suicidal thoughts and actions, according to the newest iteration of a campus health assessment.

When compared to a national sample of college students, the 713 UI students who responded to the National College Health Assessment survey in spring 2018 were more likely to use alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine; engage in high-risk drinking; and be sexually active.

On the positive side, the UI sample — representing a 98-percent response rate — was more likely than the national group to be a healthy weight, feel safe, and get enough sleep, according to the report made public Wednesday.

The findings come as issues involving campus climate and safety continue to gain national attention, with sexual misconduct, discrimination, and alcohol abuse regularly making the news cycle.

UI administrators have used surveys over the years to track progress in those areas and others — participating annually in the national health assessment and crafting its own campus climate survey. Administrators in April reported the university’s 2017 “Speak Out Iowa” climate survey found about one in five female undergraduates reported being raped since enrolling.

The university year over year has earned recognition — or condemnation, depending on your perspective — for its party-school reputation, landing atop the Princeton Review’s annual party school list in 2013 and at No. 2 in 2014 and 2015 before falling out of the top five in 2016, when it came in at No. 6.

In the Review’s most recent ranking, Iowa sits at No. 11. And UI officials have reported making strides in curbing dangerous drinking since forming an Alcohol Harm Reduction Advisory Committee in 2009. Compared to data collected that year, high-risk drinking has dropped more than 29 percent; the number of undergraduates drinking 10 or more days a month has dropped more than 37 percent; and undergraduates consume an average of two fewer drinks per occasion, according to UI officials.

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Year over year, though, the new national assessment shows an uptick in alcohol use over 30 days — 75 percent compared with 73 percent last year — reversing for the first time a steady downward trend from 85 percent in 2009. Nearly 23 percent reported using alcohol on 10 or more days in the past 30, compared with 19 percent last year, according to the new results.

High-risk drinking, described as consuming five or more on one occasion in the last two weeks, came in at 49.6 percent this year, compared with 50.5 percent last year. The average number of drinks consumed per time similarly held steady at 5.3, compared with 5.4 last year.

Marijuana use reached its highest mark since at least 1991, according to the survey, hitting 34 percent, a five percentage point jump over last year. The percent of those using on 10 or more days in a month swelled to 17 percent from 12 percent, with cocaine use increasing from 3 percent to 5 percent, and abuse of prescription stimulants climbing from 15 percent to 20.

Tobacco use also inched up, reversing what had been a yearslong downward trend, with the biggest increase coming in e-cigarette use. Nearly 8 percent reported using e-cigarettes last year, compared with 25 percent this year.

Some of the negative trends persisted in categories related to violence and abuse, with 12 percent reporting an emotionally abusive relationship, compared with 10 percent last year and 8 percent in 2013; 22 percent reporting receiving verbal threats compared with 20 percent last year; and 12 percent reporting sexual touching without consent, compared with 8 percent last year.

Top stressors continue to be academics, relationships, sleep, and finances, although students reported some changes in how they deal with stress — with 9 percent reporting self-harm, compared with 6 percent last year; 13 percent reporting considering suicide, compared with 8 percent; and 4 percent attempting suicide, compared with 1 percent.

Nearly 35 percent of women and 21 percent of men said they were diagnosed or treated for at least one mental health condition in the last year, compared with 32 percent of women and 19 percent of men last year. Nearly 23 percent of respondents were diagnosed with anxiety, compared with 20 last year; and 18 percent were diagnosed with depression, up from with 13 percent.

In a statement, UI Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers said the university continues to set goals and strive toward improvement — with the Alcohol Harm Reduction Advisory Committee planning to start work on a new three-year Alcohol Harm Reduction Plan in the fall.

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“This latest report shows another year of small change in our alcohol use, which means we need to explore additional efforts to help bring us closer to the national average and continue creating a culture that maximizes student health and safety,” Shivers said.

The new plan will include a list of evidence-based strategies to continue addressing high-risk drinking and other substance abuse.

“Changing our culture around high-risk drinking and drug use takes everyone — students, families, and campus and local communities — all working together,” Tanya Villhauer, UI associate director for harm reduction and strategic initiatives, said in a statement. “We’re looking forward to identifying new strategies and approaches to help continue decreasing the number of students using alcohol and other substances.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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