NACOGDOCHES, Texas — The self-reported overall health and wellness of the student body at Stephen F. Austin State University is largely on par with national averages and better than average in key areas related to drug and alcohol use, according to the results of a recent survey. 

The National College Health Assessment survey, which is administered by the American College Health Association, is the gold standard for higher education health assessments, according to Dr. Andrew Dies, SFA’s associate vice president of student affairs and dean of students.

“The NCHA is a nationally recognized research survey that helps institutions collect specific data about our students’ health habits, behaviors and perceptions,” he said. “This data can help inform us on the current state of our students’ health and on the implementation of or changes to programs and services.”

The survey asks about nutrition, health care utilization, impediments to academic performance, tobacco and alcohol use, and mental health and well-being, among other topics.

Alcohol and drug use rates among SFA students fell below national averages, with SFA’s rate for students who claimed to have consumed alcohol in the last three months falling 11% lower than national figures. Likewise, cannabis use among SFA students within the past three months was nearly 6% lower than national averages. While positive overall, the survey found a higher prevalence of SFA students who drove within six hours of using cannabis.

“This was a surprising result for me,” Dies said. “The national data set was 30.8% and ours was 48.6%. This indicates some necessary education on the effects of marijuana and how it can impair an individual.”

Many areas where SFA’s numbers negatively diverged more than 5% from the national average were related to mental or emotional health. The pandemic is not solely responsible for the gap, Dies said, but COVID-19 exacerbated mental health issues.

“The numbers in reference to stress and anxiety were the least surprising,” Dies said. “We know our students experience this, as do students across the nation. The Dean of Students Office works with our students who are experiencing these issues to help them identify resources and continue in their success. These data underscore how important student wellness and well-being initiatives are at SFA.”

Nearly 50% of respondents indicated that they felt students’ health and well-being is a priority at SFA, which is almost 5% more than the national average. However, 11.5% more SFA respondents self-reported feelings of anxiety and 13.8% more reported feelings of depression than national averages.

On-campus initiatives have been in development to address known issues within the student body over the past few years. In 2022, SFA employees in the Division of Student Affairs responded to a growing pandemic-related spike in mental health issues by creating the Lumberjack Wellness Network. This holistic take on health services combined and streamlined all resources available to students in one location.

The Health and Wellness Hub was also created last year to centralize available health-related services into one building.

Within the past year, they also expanded access to counseling by growing their Counseling Services staff and by partnering with TogetherAll, which provides virtual peer-to-peer mental health and well-being support. 

“Results of this study provide an opportunity for SFA to focus on populations in need to help them identify the resources, both internal to themselves and within the institution, that can help,” Dies said. “Counseling Services continues to identify different group options for students to join so they can realize they may not be alone.”

Additionally, to address the survey’s findings and develop next steps, the Dean of Students Office formed a committee comprising staff members from across campus. The group has met multiple times since the results were released in the fall. They identified areas where SFA diverged most from national figures and discussed both existing services and potential new educational and outreach programs.

“This isn’t something that could or should happen overnight,” Dies said. “Planning has already begun for certain areas under our Student Wellness umbrella, and we will start to see deployment of these in fall 2023. Other areas will take more time. We need to know what resources will be available as we become part of The University of Texas System so we may take advantage of them effectively and efficiently.”

This first survey’s data is just a starting point — Dies said he hopes to conduct the same survey every two years so that administrators can eventually create programs and initiatives based on year-over-year comparative analyses.