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harm-prevention programming

Why Are Students So Unhealthy during Finals Week?
Posted by On Monday, December 9, 2013

It’s that time of the year: the trees are all bare, a coat of frost shines on the sidewalk, the smell of  anxiety hangs in the air, and sleep-deprived students lumber around campus unshowered and unshaven. Ah, finals season!

Most of us intuitively understand that stress is connected to students’ failure to fulfill even the most basic self-care during finals, but why? After all, students usually don’t have class or other commitments during finals week, so they should be able to focus exclusively on studying without ignoring the basics like brushing their teeth and getting enough to eat.

Indeed, one might think that faced with the intense pressure of finals, students would renew their focus and effort. In fact, research suggests otherwise, demonstrating how stress alters the way we make decisions.

When stressed out we tend to focus on the short-term rewards and pleasurable outcomes of a decision while ignoring the less savory and long-term consequences. That’s why it’s so hard to resist eating that pint of ice cream in your freezer after a tough day or to forgo buying that new pair of shoes you covet (but can’t afford) after a miserable meeting at the office.

In other words, it is exactly because students have to study for five finals that a friend’s invitation to party tempts them so much. The stress causes them to focus on the immediate reward of going to the party (socializing and drinking) and not the downside of losing a night’s sleep to late night carousing (hang over and poor grades).

Stress also makes it more difficult for students to connect bad decisions to their consequences. Even if students go out the night before a test, stress will help them remember the pleasurable experience of socializing and drinking and forget the fact that they were horribly hung over for the exam. This is one reason why researchers also link stress to substance abuse and addiction. Under stress, you focus on the pleasures of the drug and lose sight of the negative consequences.

Am I saying that stress makes us short-sighted and irresponsible? Not quite. Another recent study shows that under stress some people are actually more likely to sacrifice their time to help someone they care about. The research supports the uplifting hypothesis that humankind’s default setting is to self-sacrifice (when it comes to close relationships). This is well and good for our species, but it also explains why some harried students take on big social commitments during finals week when they should be making more time for themselves.

All this rather paradoxically suggests that exactly when we need to buckle down and get the most done, we have the fewest cognitive resources to do so because stress saps our willpower. Given this fact, a nudge in the right direction might help students keep their cool and improve their grades.

A few common tips worth reminding students about:

Exercise (like walking) has long been touted as an important stress reliever and memory aid. Recent studies suggest that regular exercise also boosts creativity.

Mindfulness and meditation are also good ways to decompress and still the turbulent waters of daily life.

Also remind students to wait until after finals to make big decisions. The simple act of waiting can help students make better, more reflective choices.

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Prevention Must Include the LGBTQ Community
Posted by On Monday, November 18, 2013

Recent research suggests that members of the LGBTQ community are just as—if not more—likely to be victims of sexual violence as their heterosexual peers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2010 Findingson Victimization by Sexual Orientation found that nearly half of lesbian women, four in ten gay men, half of bisexual men, and three-quarters of bisexual women have been victims of sexual violence in their lifetime. Such alarming figures make it clear that sexual assault is a problem that affects students of all sexual orientations. Moreover, the often marginalized position of the LGBTQ community compounds and complicates numerous issues faced by survivors of sexual assault.

For example, as we’ve written about in the past, it’s not unusual for survivors to be discouraged from reporting by the fear that they will encounter hostility on the part of law enforcement and other first responders. The fear of hostility motivated by homophobia compounds the problem for members of the LGBTQ community. For some LGBTQ survivors, reporting a sexual assault could mean “outing” themselves before they’re prepared to reveal their sexuality. There’s also the fear that, because the conventionally accepted narrative of sexual violence focuses on heterosexual assaults, an assault involving members of the LGBTQ community will be sensationalized.

Another ugly fact is that homophobia not only contributes to underreporting of sexual assault in the LGBTQ community, but can also motivate assaults against members of that community. According to theUniversity of Minnesota Morris Violence Prevention Center, sexual assault is often used as a weapon by those who wish to humiliate LGBTQ people for their sexual orientation, or (especially in cases where a lesbian woman is assaulted by a straight man) somehow “cure” them of their orientation. The unhappy overlap between hate crimes and sexual assault is especially important for administrators to be aware of in light of the Campus SaVE Act’s requirements for schools to include hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity in their annual security reports.

These issues make clear the importance of harm-prevention programming that encompasses the entire spectrum of a campus population. The current conversation about sexual assault on college campuses is, of course, incredibly important and a welcome change from decades of silence on an issue that won’t go away unless it’s addressed directly. But does the conversation campuses are having about sexual violence include all of the students affected by the problem? A conversation about sexual violence on college campuses that revolves around or even assumes scenarios involving heterosexual male perpetrators and heterosexual female victims fails to address the needs of survivors whose experiences fall outside the range of that common but by no means universal experience.

Administrators need to consider programming designed to help all students by covering the unique problems faced by members of the LGBTQ community. By bringing these issues into the conversation, schools encourage students to report sexual assault, regardless of their gender, race, or sexual orientation.  Inclusive and effective prevention training must recognize the grim but important truth that sexual assault can affect any student on campus.

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