Campus & Community

Study finds Harvard students healthier than peers

4 min read

Students at Harvard drink more, smoke less, and have less sex than students at other colleges, according to the first nationwide survey of college lifestyles and health behaviors. Harvardians also are more depressed, get into fewer fights, and are slightly more likely to be homosexual or bisexual.

The American College Health Association did the survey by sending questionnaires to 28 schools last year; 16,024 undergraduate students responded including 904 from Harvard.

“We were pleased to see that we are no worse and slightly better than other schools,” said David Rosenthal, director of Harvard’s University Health Services (UHS).

Slightly more than 75 percent of Harvard students described their health as excellent or very good, compared with 61 percent of the national sample.

“Smoking is a problem,” admitted Rosenthal. Although only 15.6 percent of Harvard students said they smoke, compared with 25.3 percent nationally, “I was surprised at the large number of our students who smoke,” he said.

“We see smoking increasing as students move from their freshman to their senior year,” noted Michael Hoyt, coordinator of health resources at UHS. “This is a huge issue because students are at the age where they’re starting to form lifetime habits.”

“Alcohol is also a big issue,” Rosenthal said. Slightly more than 72 percent of Harvard students reported drinking alcohol in the 30 days before completing the questionnaire, compared with the national average of 68 percent.

“The thing that keeps me up at night is concern about students injuring themselves or others after drinking too much,” Rosenthal noted.

About 8 percent of Harvard students reported driving after drinking. Fourteen percent admitted injuring themselves as a consequence of drinking, compared with 17 percent nationally. Two percent said they injured another person, compared with more than 4 percent nationally. At Harvard, 30 percent of the drinkers forgot where they were or what they did at times; the national average was 28 percent.

Alcohol use affected the academic performance of 5.5 percent of students at Harvard, versus 7.9 percent nationally, according to the survey.

Drinking and sex

Drinking that leads to unwanted sex is a problem on every campus. One percent of Harvard’s female undergraduates reported use of force or threats of force to have sex, less than half the 2.3 percent national average.

At Harvard, 0.8 percent of the women reported they were raped, compared with 1.8 percent nationally. “The 0.8 percent amounts to 52 students,” Hoyt pointed out. He noted that less than a half-dozen rapes were actually reported. “That is the kind of information we need in our efforts to get the number down to zero.”

Thirty-nine percent of Harvard males and females said they had no sex partners within the past school year, compared with 29 percent of males and 27 percent of females nationally. Five percent of Harvard men and women reported having four or more partners in the past school year, compared with national numbers of 11 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

At Harvard, 2.6 percent of students describe themselves as gay or lesbian versus 1.4 percent nationally. For bisexuality, the numbers are 2.2 versus 1.5 percent. Some students said they were “not sure” of their sexual orientation – 1.7 percent at Harvard, 1.5 percent nationally.

Living away from home and meeting academic standards can be stressful for many students. Nationally, 23 percent reported they have been diagnosed with depression within the past year, as opposed to 34 percent at Harvard. Approximately 34 percent of the Harvardians are in therapy or taking medication for depression, versus about 19 percent nationally.

Rosenthal attributed the higher numbers of those in treatment to a Harvard outreach program begun last year. “We have the students watching out for each other,” he noted. “The faculty – even dining-service workers – are alert for signs of depression. And we have increased the number and hours of availability of mental health professionals.”

Rosenthal also expressed concern about diet and physical activity on campus. More than a quarter of Harvard students (29 percent of the males, 21 percent of the females) said they are overweight. Two percent checked “very overweight” on the questionnaire. Forty-two percent of Harvard students, and 50 percent of students nationally are exercising to lose weight; for dieting the numbers are 23 and 26 percent.

Harvard has been working to improve all its numbers, said Hoyt and Rosenthal. “Surveys like this one provide us with information we need to spot trends and to evaluate the health services we provide,” Hoyt noted.

“Our numbers are good,” added Rosenthal, “but we still have a great deal to do.”