Thursday, August 18, 2016

Asking New College Roommates About Their Health

Moving to a college campus brings a world of changes, including living at close quarters with near-strangers. Along with personal items packed from home, roommates bring their personal health issues to the mix. So, how do you protect yourself from infectious diseases? How much do you need to know – or reveal – about chronic medical or mental health conditions? And how do you deal with super-stressed peers or heavy drinkers in the dorm? Living in healthy harmony starts with common-sense precautions and open discussions.

[See: 10 Cold and Flu Myths Debunked.]

Medical Conditions on Campus

Some diseases are much less scary or contagious than they sound. If your roommate had he patitis C, for instance, you'd have almost zero chance of contracting it yourself. On the other hand, if he or she is battling a cold, watch out.

"The most common things we see as communicable between roommates are the kinds of diseases we know spread in general," says Dr. Sarah Van Or man, executive director for university health services at the University of Madison-Wisconsin. Upper respiratory infections, flu, mono and diarrhea illnesses are common and more easily spread in residence halls.

Sharing cups is probably the most common way students spread illnesses, says Van Or man, who is a past president of the American College Health Association. Sharing cigarettes is another. A myth she frequently hears is the mistaken belief that alcohol kills germs on glasses, with many students who wouldn't dream of sharing a toothbrush willing to come over and take a sip.

While scabies might occasionally pass from one student to another via clothing or linens, the mites are easily treatable, Van Orman says. Good hygiene will help keep you healthy: "Like cleaning your room once a week – and that includes wiping down the door and keyboard with disinfectant wipes." Hand-washing and yearly flu shots help, too.

Chronic medical conditions on campus run the gamut from asthma to Crohn's disease,diabetes and depression. For some students, inhalers, glucose testing strips or prescription medicines are part of the daily routine. However, for many students, Van Or man says, "Their first reaction is: 'I don't want anybody to know about this. I don't want to be different.'"

However, "sharing small parts of that information in a matter-of-fact way can be really helpful for their roommate," as they move forward and feel more comfortable, Van Orman says. "That can really help lay the groundwork – it's not a secret." Providing an explanation of what emergencies – like perilously low blood sugar – might be and what roommates should do "is very reasonable," she says, along with wearing a medic bracelet or necklace.

Knowing a roommate is recovering from an eating disorder, for example, would help others realize that a regular meal schedule and not skipping meals are important for keeping this person on track.

[See: 11 Simple, Proven Ways to Optimize Your Mental Health.]

Student Stress

As a resident assistant at Marquette University, Nycole Fassbender says stress is the No. 1 health issue she sees. Fassbender, 20, a junior majoring in criminology and psychology, is preparing for a new batch of incoming students to the Milwaukee campus. Freshmen in particular may feel stressed from homesickness, the uncertainties of meeting new friends and just trying to figure out what to do with their lives, she says.

Depression is another issue, says Fassbender, who is also a chapter leader with Active Minds, a national group advocating for young adult mental health. Residents who've never had to deal with depression aren't sure how to approach the subject. "It's really important to be open about depression," she says. "Just having a conversation. Or even just opening up the lines of communication about anything between roommates."

Underage drinking is prohibited on campus. However, Fassbender notes, alcohol issues can arise. "If you're having struggles talking to your roommate – maybe they don't want to listen or hear it – you can bring your RA in as a mediator," she says.

If roommates appear to be struggling with mental health issues, Fassbender says,students could recommend on-campus support groups or ask them along to attend an Active Minds event.

When students are harming themselves or bringing up thoughts of suicide, it's imperative to bring in outside supports. Students should contact RAs immediately or call the college's emergency line, Fassbender says.

Van Orman says that with such cases, it's more important to find help than to keep a roommate's secret. "There are times when it's OK to violate somebody's confidence," she says. By alerting somebody else – or encouraging the roommate to seek immediate help – you can save a life.

[See: 7 Health Risks of Binge Drinking You Can't Ignore.]

Roommates in Recovery

For young people working to stay sober, reentry into college life takes careful navigation and thoughtful discussions. Part of recovery is taking responsibility for your own environment, says Kate Appleman, clinical director for men's treatment and health care programming at Caron Treatment Centers, based in Pennsylvania. That includes making sure your living situation is a healthy one.

Whether you're an incoming student with or without substance issues, it's smart to find out your roommate's take on drinking and drug use. "Some of the most important conversations we have are the most awkward ones," Appleman says. But if you're not comfortable asking, "What's your drinking like?" certain behaviors will provide clues.

Inconsistencies, like saying one thing and doing something else; making commitments but not following through; or inability to show up for early classes are subtle signs, Appleman says. More obvious pointers include active substance use in the room, she says, or "a change of behavior when somebody is drinking and when they're not."

With addiction or overuse of chemicals like marijuana, opioid and stimulant pills or alcohol, Appleman says, certain behaviors may resonate. With groups of young addicts in treatment, she says, "the topic of Netflix comes up frequently. The repetitive use of TV and watching episode after episode after episode in conjunction with use."

Once a person is past early recovery and ready to return to college, campuses offer many supports to help them succeed. For example, Appleman says, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey-New Brunswick has "a really great program in place in conjunction with sober living," as do many other campuses.

A student in recovery can be a great roommate, Appleman says, with strong study habits, consistent behavior, empathy and the desire to be a good friend. For that student, she says, "It's about being able to say, 'You know, I had a bout of addiction' or 'I had a bout of alcoholism. I got sick and I'm getting better.'"

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