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.

Information

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.

Entitlements

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 student health.

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".

Images

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".

Future careers

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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