The College Life Series From Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Licensed Mental Health Counselor Shares Views and Advice on Common Challenges Students Face When Adjusting to College/Campus Life
November 21, 2013
The college semester is at the halfway point for many students enrolled at colleges and universities across the country. In the coming weeks, students will be preparing for mid-term exams, registering for the spring 2014 semester, and making plans to head home for the Thanksgiving holiday. This halfway point provides a good milestone to review some of the significant life changes many freshman students have navigated over the past few months—living independently possibly for the first time, starting classes, meeting peers, and exploring a new geographical area. High school seniors who are getting ready to make their transition to college next year may also be thinking about these same topics.
Kevin Readdean, a seasoned expert with more than 20 years of experience in the field of college health and associate director in the Gallagher Student Health Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, answers questions and offers advice on some ways that students can adjust to college/campus life.
Q: In your opinion, what are the key physical and mental health issues that college students face today?
A: Sleep problems are a widespread issue among college students that can contribute to other physical and mental health problems. Adjusting to irregular class schedules, a proclivity to pulling all-nighters, and residence hall noise are some of the barriers that may prevent college students from getting good, regular sleep. Lack of sleep can lead to stress, illness, depression, and poor eating habits. Ideally, it is recommended that the average student needs seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
Talking about sex can be challenging. Sexually transmitted infections, most of which are treatable, are a key physical health issue for today’s college students. Despite access to testing, treatment, and prevention options, some college students are not being proactive enough in this area. Our mission is to guide students to make health a priority in their daily lives. The best sex safety advice that health educators can give to college students? Talk to partners, get tested, seek treatment, and advocate for consistent condom use.
Stress, anxiety, and depression are also key issues among the college population. Trends in the number of college students with mental health problems and the severity of these issues are not necessarily an indicator of increased prevalence among the college age group, but more likely a reflection of improvements in psychotropic medications and greater utilization of mental health care. The decline of the stigma surrounding mental health has allowed more students with mental health issues to enroll in college and then seek continued care.
Alcohol and other drug use also places college students at risk for a host of negative health outcomes, and thus is another serious college health issue.
Last summer, Rensselaer purchased the on-line education program AlcoholEdu® for College. The alcohol prevention program is designed for use at a population level – that is, given to an entire population of students, such as an entering first-year class. This method creates a comprehensive learning experience that motivates behavior change, resets unrealistic expectations about the effects of alcohol, links choices about drinking to academic and personal success, and helps students practice healthier and safer decision-making.
As part of the program, students take three surveys throughout the course, which allow us to collect critical data on their attitudes and behaviors toward alcohol, including students’ readiness to change their behavior, which protective factors or high-risk factors they exhibit, and what expectations they have toward alcohol. All of this data will help to better understand and meet the needs of Rensselaer students.
Q: Conversely, are there health “myths” associated with college that should be put to rest?
A: The “Freshman 15” is not inevitable. College students today have more dining hall food choices and information than ever before. With effort and planning, healthy eating can be achieved on any meal plan. A few clicks into a dining services website and students are likely to find nutrition information, portion size advice, special dietary accommodations, and perhaps even access to a nutritionist. Students who capitalize on this wealth of information and plethora of food choices can easily maintain a healthy weight.
Q: What are the top things you encourage students to do regarding their mental and physical health?
1. Bring balance into your life. Be active and exercise to equalize out those hours sitting in class or in front of a screen.
2. Eat healthy in the midst of all those dining hall choices. Keep healthy snacks on hand and know your portion size.
3. Talk to friends and faculty in person. Posting, liking, and tweeting can’t fully replace face-to-face socialization. Build social relationships as a way to help relieve stress and develop networks of friends and resources.
Combat stress with time and life management skills that include a balanced routine of activity, socialization, studying, and sleep. Beat stress with fun, not food.
No list of college health issues would be complete without reference to communicable diseases. Colds, upper respiratory infections, and “stomach bugs” thrive in the close quarters of college living and the sharing behaviors of adolescents. Mom knows best: wash your hands and don’t share your beverages.
For more information, visit the Student Health Center website: http://studenthealth.rpi.edu/
For more information about the AlcoholEdu® for College visit: http://studenthealth.rpi.edu/healthEd.php?catid=1057
About Kevin Readdean
Readdean joined the Gallagher Student Health Center in 2007. He received his master’s in psychological services from the University of Pennsylvania and is a licensed mental health counselor. While at Rensselaer, Readdean served as peer reviewer for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Campus Suicide Prevention Grant program. He is a member of the American College Health Association and currently serves as president for the New York State College Health Association (NYSCHA). Prior to joining Rensselaer, he served as an administrative director of the Health and Counseling Services at SUNY Cobleskill. Over the years, Readdean has delivered presentations at several professional conferences on topics including quality assurance in college health, integrated physical and mental health centers, and measuring the impact of counseling services.