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.
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
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.