We know there is a health care crisis in America. From sky rocketing obesity rates to national health care policy, the issue is known as the “third rail” of American politics because it’s so controversial.
More than 45 million Americans live without health insurance. It was discovered last week that at Walter Reed, our nation’s state-of-the-art military hospital, veterans are living in mold-filled rooms where rats abound, among more than a few other problems. It’s obvious that health care-related issues warrant attention.
But we’re college students. It’s difficult to get outraged about a situation that seems so far removed from our lives. Well-fed, well-sexed and barely into our 20s, we feel health is a topic to be explored by a more geriatric-like age group. There always seems to be a sexier issue to organize around.
At least that is how I used to feel. Then three of my friends landed in the hospital, all in the month of February. Very quickly I realized that whatever sense of invincibility I had previously associated with my youth was a farce.
First my friend Robyn ate half a jar of Peter Pan peanut butter, unaware that it was part of a bad batch infected with Salmonella bacteria. A few days later, word came that a high school friend of mine studying abroad in Spain had contracted bacterial meningitis and was in a coma. And to round off the month, my roommate had a serious bout of appendicitis. The experience was made far scarier by the fact that she unknowingly walked around with a burst appendix for two days after University Health Services misdiagnosed her symptoms as “stomach flu” and sent her home as a walking time bomb.
Thankfully, such freak incidents are rare. While most of us will never have to experience a meningitis-induced coma or poisoning by peanut butter, many of us put our health at risk every day.
The combination of drugs, sex and rock’n’roll, infamous among parents and social conservatives everywhere, are a part of college life for many. But while I have no interest in indulging the moral police, I will admit that I sometimes wonder: How much drinking is too much? And if this kind of drinking was going on outside of the college campus or the 18-to-25 age range, would it be considered (gasp) alcoholism?
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, it would. Binge drinking is defined as consuming five drinks in a row for men and four for women within a two-hour period. This definition makes even your average game of beer pong a flirtation with alcoholism.
Eating disorders and depression also plague college campuses. According to the National Institute of Health, about 10 percent of college women are bulimic. And a 2004 American College Health Association survey found that almost half of college students have reported some form of depression.
These statistics should come as no surprise to University students – we already know we have a problem. Almost everyone has that one friend who goes to the bar a little too often or who doesn’t ever seem to eat enough. We don’t need statistics to tell us that cocaine has returned to college campuses with a vengeance. And just last year, two students at our university committed suicide, jumping to their deaths off of the same parking structure less than two months apart. None of this, though, seems to instill a sense of urgency or alarm in the student body.
Odd – this campus is filled with activism and protests of almost every kind, from anti-Coke coalitions to Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day. But when it comes to the health of the student body – our own and that of our friends – we have little to say, at least collectively. Alcoholism and drug addiction are not characteristics we like to associate with a wealthy and elite student body, and yet their presence on this campus is very real. We speak in hushed tones about these afflictions and the peers they harm. But these issues should be talked about openly because they are not always isolated incidents of students gone off the deep end. They are often symptoms of a University community that is not as healthy as it should be.
Technically speaking your roommate’s bulimia is all in her head. But do we really believe her condition has developed independent of a community in which college women can be found in mini-skirts and stilettos in the dead of a Michigan winter? It might very well be, for example, that the wealth in the University’s Greek community has created a special market for cocaine among college students. Or that the general unease with which the black community regards mental health may put that group of University students at higher risk for depression. But instead of trying to offer a social context to these issues we have chosen to treat breakdowns in health among our peers as solely of the individual.
Strangely, in the face of its own health crisis, one of the most vocal groups of college students in the country has remained altogether silent.
Mara Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.