Health at college
Health may be the last subject on the minds of the thousands of students attending
colleges and universities. Young people, often living away from home for the
first time, are possibly the least likely people of all to pay attention to
their health needs.
Students do not always eat properly in order to sustain their bodies while
they pursue their hectic lifestyles. Also the college atmosphere can be as conducive
to alcohol abuse, sexual irresponsibility and experimentation as it is about
studying and passing exams.
In such an environment, it is almost inevitable that most students will eventually
find themselves at their college health centre, if only to obtain medication
for a dose of the flu or a repeat prescription for the contraceptive pill. However,
others find themselves at the medical centre's door seeking help when in dire
circumstances. Unplanned pregnancy, exam stress, depression or serious ill health
can all devastate a promising college career if professional and confidential
advice and help is not sought.
Students relax at NUI
Maynooth's bar - but binge drinking is a serious threat to students' health.
Students will usually have had a family GP taking care of their health up to
the point when they attend college. If their course takes place some distance
from the family home and they are forced to move away, it is important for students
to change doctors to one in their new locality, or transfer to the doctor at
their college medical centre.
Given the lack of support that many students experience, away from family and
childhood friends, it is important for them to know about what services and
benefits are available to them, both from their student medical centre and from
the health and welfare sectors at large. The vast majority of third level institutions
in Ireland run their own dedicated medical centre on campus. These are usually
staffed by nurses and doctors, but in smaller colleges, the doctor may only
visit the centre a number of times a week.
Students do not necessarily receive free healthcare, though many services provided
by college health centres are without charge. The Union of Students in Ireland
is campaigning for all students to receive free medical cards, an initiative
they believe would cost just £4.5 million a year. Currently, only students who
are proven to be independent of their parents are eligible and even then there
are strict income guidelines. Students who live with their parents may be eligible,
but will have to demonstrate that they are not financially dependent upon them.
Foreign national students in possession of an E128 form receive all the benefits
that a medical card offers.
Rules vary between health boards, but generally those who earn less than £70
per week are deemed to be dependent on their parents. There is no current formal
upper limit on income, but in practice an income of over £100 per week will
rule a student out of eligibility. Orla O'Reilly, customer services department
spokesperson for the Eastern Regional Health Authority, told irishhealth.com
that formal guidelines would be drawn up in the near future.
Certainly the benefits of a medical card would be appreciated by many students
who find that the average doctor's fee of £30 is a significant amount out of
their limited weekly budget. So, many students who fall ill simply do not attend
their GP at all, a development which concerns those who work in the area of
Orlagh Fleming is a nurse working in the medical centre of Tallaght Institute
of Technology. She believes that many students feel invulnerable because of
their youth and relative fitness and finds that many will not attend for treatment
unless they find it is actually affecting their studies. Only when they are
in pain will they seek the help they require.
Orlagh Fleming, nurse at Tallaght Institute of Technology.
"We do lots of health awareness campaigns here and you will get a queue of
people who show up and are interested", she says. "But often they do not really
take the message of protecting their health on board. Preventative health issues
are not something students take a lot of notice of. They tend to leave illness
to the last moment until they are actually in pain before they come for help.
If it is affecting their study, they will come forward".
The image of students may be one of partying and drinking, but alcohol abuse
is not necessarily an issue causing serious trouble to the health of many students.
The bingeing culture in many colleges remains of concern and the Department
of Health has recently launched a new drive to licence the role of drink representatives
on campuses. For Orlagh Fleming, however, it is sex rather than drink or drugs
that brings students to the medical centre.
"Very few students approach us relating to a drink or drug problem and that
might be a good thing or a bad thing", she explains. "Perhaps they are simply
not coming forward, or equally it may not be an issue for significant numbers
of students. Occasionally people attend our counsellor with addiction issues,
but they would be very few in number".
Increasingly it is sexual irresponsibility that leads many students to seek
medical treatment, she says. There has been controversy over introducing sexual
education classes into secondary level schools, but the real problem seems to
be that students are not receiving enough sexual education, or are not listening
to the information being given to them.
Students exercise in Trinity's
College Park - but are they paying enough attention to their sexual health?
"For most students, the health ramifications of making the transition to third
level education are sexual", Orlagh Fleming explains. "With many of the students
I see, the basics of sexual health seem to be missing. There is a lot of ignorance
around in relation to sexually transmitted diseases and I have noticed an upturn
in the number of men attending with STDs. Some students seem to think that condoms
are for preventing pregnancy and are not aware of their use in halting the spread
of sexually transmitted diseases".
College years may be the best of many people's lives, but it remains crucial
that promising careers are not ruined before they are begun by health problems
that either better health education or better access to healthcare could solve.
With the recent introduction of free medical cards for the over 70s and proposals
on the table for the medical card scheme to be extended to children and the
disabled, the USI's proposal of free medical care for students does not seem
an impossibility. There is little doubt that such an incentive would encourage
many students to address their health needs rather than gamble with their health
because they are living on a tight budget.
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