IOWA CITY — University of Iowa students are engaging in far less high-risk and binge drinking than they did a decade ago, but mental health concerns are on the rise, according to new data from the National College Health Assessment survey.
Nearly 18 percent of the 568 UI undergraduates who completed the 2019 health survey — a 99 percent response rate in the sample — reported being diagnosed or treated for depression in the last year. That’s double the 9 percent reported five years ago, where it had held steady since 2009.
Nearly 26 percent of the responding UI students reported being diagnosed or treated for anxiety in the last year — three times the 8.5 percent in 2009.
More than 10 percent seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months, double the 4.5 percent a decade ago, according to the national survey.
All three of Iowa’s public universities have in recent years mounted responses to growing mental health needs, including the UI — which has expanded its counseling footprint with more offices on both sides of the Iowa River, additional hires, new counseling opportunities and extra training.
First-year UI students might soon be required to take suicide-prevention training that provides information on how to spot suicidal signs and where to get help.
The university also has “student in distress” training for faculty and staff; a “Hawkeye Allies” network of “caring, compassionate residents” in UI Housing who can support victims of sexual violence; and individual, group or couples counseling — including options specifically catering, for example, to transgender students.
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Some of those immediate efforts might be paying off, as several of the assessment’s mental health metrics are down a tick from last year — including the percent who attempted suicide, which inched down to 3.2 percent from 4 percent last year. The portion who seriously considered suicide was at 13 percent last year, compared to the 10 percent this year.
But students still listed academics as their top stressor — with 64 percent reporting feeling overwhelmed in the last month, 58 percent feeling exhausted, 44 percent feeling overwhelming anxiety and 25 percent “so depressed it was difficult to function.”
When compared with national averages, the UI sample of students were more likely to be in a healthy weight range; more likely to report feeling safe; but also more likely to use drugs and engage in high-risk drinking — despite the campus’ improvements.
About 48 percent reported having at least five drinks in the last two weeks — which was down about 22 percentage points from 70 percent in 2009, but still nearly 20 percentage points above the national average of 28 percent.
While 18 percent of UI respondents reported 10-plus days of drinking in the last month, 36 percent did so a decade ago — although the 2019 national average in that category was 12 percent.
The University of Iowa also had far higher rates than the national average in drug, cigarette and e-cigarette use, which has skyrocketed since 2016 — the first year it was tracked.
Nearly 27 percent of the respondents reported using the electronic cigarettes in the last 30 days — up from 6 percent in 2016. About 15 percent reported using e-cigarettes 10 or more days in the last month, up from just 2 percent three years ago and more than three times above the national average of 4 percent.
About 17 percent of the UI students reported using marijuana on 10 or more days — double the national average of 8 percent. And 15 percent reported illegal use of a prescription stimulant — compared with 6 percent nationally.
As the university for years topped lists ranking best “party schools” in the country, UI administrators focused their efforts on reducing those behaviors.
The campus created an Alcohol Harm Reduction Advisory Committee and Alcohol Harm Reduction Plan, which it recently updated through 2022 — boasting improvements in dangerous drinking metrics and setting new goals.
“The Alcohol Harm Reduction Advisory Committee has worked hard over the last 10 years to build a culture that is focused on student well-being and safety,” Melissa Shivers, vice president for student life, said in a statement.
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“Though there’s still work to do in order to achieve our goals, we’re encouraged by our progress and remain committed to decreasing high-risk drinking and the related harmful consequences,” she said.
When asked about the university’s efforts to address growing drug use, UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett said the alcohol harm reduction plan — as it moves forward — will include a fourth metric to “track the relationship between high-risk drinking and marijuana use.”
The new plan also includes priorities addressing “polydrug use” and campaigns related to “alcohol and other drugs.”
And the university has its version of a “collegiate recovery program,” that includes support and therapy for students in any stage of addiction to any number of things, including drugs and alcohol.
Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa have not yet reported 2019 health assessment date.
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