Substance Abuse and Sexual Risk Show Town-Gown Divide

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Two recent studies found differences in behavior between young adults attending college and their peers. Dr. Carlos Blanco of Columbia University in New York and colleagues report that in 2001-2002, one fifth of the Nation's college students had met the clinical criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse disorder within the past 12 months, compared with 17 percent of their noncollege peers. In contrast, drug and nicotine dependencies were more common among nonstudents (7 percent versus 5 percent; 21 percent versus 15 percent). The researchers based their estimates on data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), the largest nationally representative survey of substance abuse and mental health disorders to include college-age students and their noncollege peers. Their analysis linked the difference in alcohol abuse rates to sociodemographic factors that differentially affected the two groups and to recent stressful life events. Fewer than 10 percent of the survey participants with drug or alcohol problems reported having utilized treatment resources, and only half as many college as noncollege individuals reported doing so. The researchers say that their findings, reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry, highlight the need for more alcohol abuse screening and intervention, especially on college campuses.

photo of college age students talking

In a survey of 834 youths, college freshmen reported lower rates of risky sexual behavior 6 months after high school graduation than same-age youth who were not attending college. About 23 percent of the college students reported inconsistent condom use during the past month, compared with 35 percent of their noncollege peers; 15 percent said they had engaged in casual sex during the same period (versus 29 percent), and 5 percent reported high-risk sex (versus 16 percent). Jennifer A. Bailey of the University of Washington in Seattle and colleagues report in the Journal of Adolescent Health that the college students had lower rates "largely because they were more likely to do well in school and less likely to use drugs and to engage in sexual risk behaviors during high school." Prevention efforts in high school "should result in reductions in the prevalence of risky sexual behaviors in the transition to adulthood," they conclude.


Archives of General Psychiatry 65(12):1429-1437, 2008. [Full Text (PDF, 118KB)]
Journal of Adolescent Health 42(6):573-579, 2008.