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The “College Effect”: Rise in College Deaths

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At least eight freshmen at U.S. colleges have died in the first few weeks of the school year. Amy Murphy, dean of students at Texas Tech University, calls this the “college effect.” In an article on Inside Higher Ed, “Lives Cut Short”, Murphy explains:

The “college effect” is the idea that once students are on campus, they’re exposed to these higher-risk behaviors and are then more likely to participate in them. It’s this unhealthy minority that is somehow so influential on the healthy majority. This misconception comes from images in movies and television and from older siblings’ memories of what college is supposed to be.

When freshmen arrive on campus, they see upperclassmen still attempting to live up to that image and they copy that behavior, particularly when it comes to alcohol and drug abuse. Add to this the immeasurable pressure they feel to be accepted and successful. College is an environment that allows this behavior to thrive.

How can parents prepare their students for the “college effect”?

It’s not enough to just talk about the risks. Parents need to arm their soon-to-be college freshman with the tools to react and respond when dangerous situations arise.

No child is immune from this type of risky behavior. Even the most responsible student gets caught up in peer pressure and the pressure surrounding college expectations. We can talk until we are blue in the face warning them about the dangers, telling them we love them and only want them to do their best. But once they are away from home, the other influences often take over.

Parents should do more than talk about the dangers—they should discuss the risks of transitioning into college, but also help their students know what to do in the event they find themselves in a dangerous situation.

Students should know the signs of alcohol poisoning. They should know who to call and what to do if they see a student in distress. They should know what to do if someone appears suicidal—who to tell and how to help. And most importantly, they should know that they can call you anytime and not be condemned or judged if they slip into risky behavior and need help.

Alcohol is readily available, especially to freshmen who consider it an “initiation” into adulthood when their parents aren’t a factor and they are free to abuse without repercussions. Sticking your head in the sand won’t help you or your student. Discuss the “what ifs” before freshman year.

How can colleges address this issue?

In the Inside Higher Ed article, Gwyn Ashcom, the health promotion chair at the American College Health Association, said it’s important for colleges to stress that it’s normal for students to feel “a whirlwind of emotions.”During the first few weeks of school students are bombarded with information. Colleges do the best they can to educate incoming freshmen, but they can do more.

Colleges should take the discussions into the classroom. Recognizing that more needs to be done, colleges are monitoring Greek activity more closely and maintaining strict guidelines when it comes to rush and hazing, making sure to have strong consequences if any of the rules are broken. Some college are breaking students up into small groups, allowing them to be more open, learn where they can go for help, and develop friendships within the group. Knowing that incoming freshmen look up to upperclassmen, colleges should address these issues and seek out mentors and leaders to exhibit proper behavior.

But drugs and alcohol abuse aren’t the only concerns college officials have. Suicide is the second most cause of death among college students, according to a 2011 study, and is more common than alcohol poisoning. The stress of college, the change in location, and the pressure to establish new relationships can weigh heavily on incoming freshmen who already show symptoms of depression. Colleges need to stress the availability of mental health services and have open discussions about suicide and depression.

What is the student’s responsibility?

A student should be aware that college, no matter how exciting it may be, will be a difficult transition. Adjusting to college life can be overwhelming, especially with the newfound freedom and responsibility. Being responsible means making wise choices and standing up to any peer pressure that pushes risky behavior.

Students are also responsible to help when they see another student in distress. Just standing by and watching someone die of alcohol poisoning is not how an adult reacts. If you see someone needing help, get help. If you don’t know who to ask, call 911. If another student threatens suicide or appears extremely depressed, don’t stand by and act complacent. Encourage them to get help at the health center and if they refuse, tell your RA, a professor, or student advisor.

The “college effect” is nothing to laugh at. Ask any parent and they will tell you their college student has experienced and been faced with any number of trials during their first few weeks of college. Most of them aren’t as devastating as the eight freshmen that died, but being aware of the possible dangers can help students survive during those first few weeks of transition.

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Suzanne Shaffer counsels parents and students in the college admissions process and the importance of early college preparation. Her Parenting for College blog offers timely college tips for parents and students, as well as providing parents with the resources necessary to help their college-bound teens navigate the college maze.

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