Working Together for Wellness

April 23, 2012

College students face many challenges. First-year students are transitioning to a new life. Many students attend school hundreds or thousands of miles from home. The social scene can be intense, and young men and women commonly enter into their first serious romantic relationships in college.

Pile onto these factors the pressure of grades, internships and post-graduation plans, and it’s no surprise that many students experience anxiety and depression at some point in their college years. While this is true for students in general, it's even more pronounced among certain populations.

As just one example, lesbian, gay, bixexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students internationally report more than twice as many suicide attempts compared to the general college population — a fact that the University of Arizona Campus Health Service is out to change.

Partnering for LGBTQ-Safe Campuses across Arizona

Part of that work is funded through a $160,000-annually/five-year grant from the Arizona Department of Health Services. The grant focuses on improving the wellness of LGBTQ college students statewide, in part by helping to create campus environments where LGBTQ students are less likely to turn to alcohol and other drugs to cope with stress, anxiety and depression.

"The Ripple Effect" is just one example of work stemming from these collaborations. Working with the UA's LGBTQ Affairs and the student groups Pride Alliance, Delta Lambda Phi and SPRITE,  Campus Health co-presented a workshop series inviting students to interact with and learn from experts on a range of topics that included body image issues, safety in relationships, responsible drinking and more.

Now in the third year of the grant, UA Campus Health has created a network of partner groups at all three Arizona universities and a number of the state's community colleges. Many initiatives are location specific — the needs of a rural community college differ from those at the UA or ASU — but have included fostering "Safe Zone" programs, creating a statewide poster and social media campaign and launching an annual LGBTQ youth leadership conference.

Developing National Models for Suicide Prevention

LGBTQ students are also one of three special-focus populations in work supported by a suicide prevention federal grant awarded to Campus Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in fall 2011 under the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act.

The three-year grant provides $306,000, which Campus Health will match, to develop suicide prevention programs that can then be adopted by colleges and universities nationwide. Much of the work goes to building capacity in suicide prevention, by expanding existing programs and funding new training for those students, faculty and staff who are best positioned to detect students who may be contemplating suicide. 

While the award tackles suicide prevention for general college populations, UA Campus Health is simultaneously directing research to better understand suicide prevention among LGBTQ students, Native American students and military veteran students and their families. Designated interns are working with campus organizations representing each of these populations to identify challenges and strategies distinctive to these groups.

Leading the Way for Wide-Spectrum Wellness

Innovative work like this is nothing new for UA Campus Health, which has always been something of a trailblazer. In the late 70s, it became the first college health service to be fully accredited through the Association for Ambulatory Health Care. In the 90s, Campus Health aggressively pursued substance abuse prevention grants and became a national leader in research related to alcohol use among students.

In the years since, an annual survey born from those initiatives grew to explore a wide range of health topics — including alcohol and drug use, nutrition, mental health, sexual health, relationships and violence — and has become instrumental in helping Campus Health win additional grants. Adding questions about suicidal thoughts, for example, yielded data that strengthened the UA's application for the competitive SAMHSA grant won last fall. 

David Salafsky, director of the Health Promotion arm of Campus Health, says the annual survey is a key driver for the many ways that Campus Health works on campus and nationwide. "We do a lot of different things with that data," he says. "We use it to inform and evaluate our programing, but we also use it as a bridge to connect us with other departments on campus and with other campuses that may not have the resources to carry out this kind of research."

Empowering Students in Arizona and Beyond

On that note, Salafsky points out that while the survey provides an excellent "health snapshot " of UA students specifically, disseminating the research beyond campus is critical, as the survey has become one of the best student health data sets anywhere in the country.

For starters, it's big. It's typically been completed by 1,200 or more students every year, and last year's survey was completed by nearly 2,500 students. That size provides for statistically significant data not only about the general population but also about subpopulations. Also, with now 20+ years of data, it offers unmatched information on the shifting landscape of student health.

For Lauren Pring, an evaluation specialist at Campus Health currently working on initiatives funded by these two state and federal grants, the survey data and the work it inspires is fundamental to the University's teaching mandate.

"Empowerment and achievement on an academic level depend also on empowerment on an emotional and social level," Pring says. "Our hope is that our work and the work of our partners at the University and across the state will promote health and wellness in ways that help students fulfill their academic goals."