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College sex life fraught with danger
26/04/05 Examiner Student survey

Despite the worrying issues raised by the survey carried out by the Health Promotion Unit in association with the National Working Group on Alcohol Consumption in Higher Education into the health and sexual mores of students, the reality is probably worse.
The report recognised mental health, sexual health and alcohol abuse as major issues at third-level education, but its findings on unsafe sex practices would appear to underestimate the extent of the problem. What the report, College Lifestyle and Attitudinal National Study, found was that one-in-10 students engaged in unsafe sex practices.

In an RTÉ radio interview relating to the study, several students described that figure as too low and not reflecting the reality of college student sex life.

They were also quite critical of the lack of HIV-awareness information in colleges and the deplorable lack of counsellors in the education system, which resulted in months of delays for those who wished to avail of the service.

This is not to cast aspersions on the study, but only to illustrate that the extent of dangerous casual sex practices may not be fully appreciated. What can be appreciated is that the lifestyles and attitudes described in the study can weaken students' academic performance but, far more importantly, can impair their mental and physical health.

According to the study, three-quarters of drinking sessions for males and well over half such sessions for females were binge-drinking occasions. It is not unexpected then that students, especially the males, spend as much money, if not more, on drink as they do on food. Neither is it surprising that the study found that the factors which related to the students' sexual health and harm related to alcohol abuse also featured as a factor in the question of their mental health.

For instance, students were found to have poor strategies for coming to terms with depression and anxiety. More than half of them preferred to deal with it alone, one-third ignored it, while others resorted to drugs or alcohol, or else did nothing about it. Those attitudes point to immaturity and a lack of ability to cope, which is not surprising given that the study identified first and second-year students as the most vulnerable.

They are faced with the transition from the more structured system in secondary schools to a totally different milieu which they have to adapt to without any degree of induction. And yet, that age group is in the most suicide-prone group in Europe, as the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) pointed out just over two years ago in a survey that placed Ireland second in a league table of people under 25 who take their own lives.

There are more deaths from suicide in this country than from road traffic accidents and statistics show that the rates of student suicide and depression are on the increase. This study was the first national survey of its kind and the information gathered must help in the planning and development of future health policy and programmes that will be of benefit to students.

Launching it, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Seán Power, said it provided a clear picture of the issues and problems which affected students. Having seen that very disturbing picture, he must ensure that it be used as a vehicle to greatly increase the resources and facilities to address them in Ireland's huge student population.