Health survey gathers data on stress

Credit: Kelsey Scott/Operations Manager Credit: Kelsey Scott/Operations Manager

Carnegie Mellon students were recently asked to take a health survey that requested information on a broad range of topics that included sexual health, stress levels, and physical activity.

Anita Barkin, director of University Health Services, sent out an email to the student body two weeks ago, asking students to complete the online survey about health-related experiences at Carnegie Mellon. The survey was meant to determine “how best to provide resources to support students’ physical and emotional well-being.”

This year’s health survey focused on mental health and student stress levels, according to Barkin. In 2007 and 2009, the last two years that a campus-wide health survey was administered, Student Health Services used the National College Health Assessment (NCHA). The NCHA, which is produced by the American College Health Association, focuses on health areas that college students generally struggle with, such as sexual health, alcohol, and drug usage.

While the NCHA has several advantages in that it yields data that can be compared with a national body of university students, Barkin wanted the survey at Carnegie Mellon this year to also focus on other areas.

“We looked at the information and the data being collected [by the NCHA] and said ‘you know what? We want to do something that’s a little bit different.’ We want to make sure they’re addressing some of the issues that have been raised over the past year regarding stress,” she said.

Director of the Office of Institutional Research and Analysis Janel Sutkus compared the survey in some ways to the “CMU Says” survey, a similar health survey, administered two years ago.

“We’ve never really done a measure of stress and stress management,” she said. “In the CMU Says survey two years ago we looked at sleep, we looked at physical fitness, we look eating habits. In the past National College Health Assessment, we looked at sexual activity and alcohol and drug use. The stress level, the stress management, those pieces are new.”

Barkin hopes that this survey will provide a richer data set for understanding how students deal with stress; “We know that students reported high levels of stress, the problem was that we didn’t have follow up questions,” Barkin said.

Sutkus wants the survey to focus on how stress and stress management is affected by key aspects of health like sleep levels and eating habits.

“The relationships between all of these things are critically important. I would like to understand the relationship between sleep and stress management and physical fitness so we can report back to the students, ‘look, this is what you told us, these are some of the healthy behaviors and these are some of the less healthy behaviors. Now that we’ve learned this and you’ve told us what services are important to you, we can make decisions about what gets enhanced and what’s not being utilized.’ ”

Lucy Havens, a junior information systems major, said she appreciated that the university was trying to address Carnegie Mellon’s stress culture.

“I think students know that stress here is a problem, so it’s nice to know that the school is trying to address that. I appreciate the fact that they have the survey in the first place,” she said.

The survey itself, Barkin said, was created mostly by Sutkus.

According to Sutkus, the survey looked at student health in three major areas: physical health, mental health, and stress levels.

The survey asked questions designed to address how these three major health areas interact with other aspects of student health, including sleep, sexual health, physical fitness, alcohol and drug use, nutrition and eating habits, and stress management.

Sutkus said that the information from the survey will be used to allocate resources within the university to address student needs.

“We can look at the kinds of resources we offer and see if they’re meeting students’ needs,” Sutkus said.

While Sutkus will be analyzing the data from the survey herself, she will provide the results to various divisions of the university, including the Athletics Department and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

“We have been working very closely with other areas on campus, so I spent a lot of time with [Interim Director of Athletics] Josh Centor and [Director of CAPS] Kurt Kumler to get some of the language around these areas. They will be the recipients of some of the results, along with folks like [Dean of Student Affairs] Gina Casalegno, [Vice Provost for Education] Amy Burkert, and lots of folks from student affairs and academic advising.”

Barkin mentioned that it’s important to look not just at students with unhealthy habits but also students who are managing their health well.

“You know, the important thing, too, is not only to understand behaviors that are potentially not healthy, but [also to understand] those students who are doing very well. What does that look like? What does our well student look like? Because there are things we can learn from that as well,” she said.

While the 2007 NCHA received a response rate of about 24 percent, Barkin said, she hopes that this year’s survey will be taken by more students.

Sutkus said that they are aiming for a response rate of between 40 and 45 percent, and are already halfway to their goal. This total also includes graduate students at Carnegie Mellon, who have never been included in a campus health survey before this year.

Student Health Services is incentivizing the survey with coupons for a free frozen yogurt dessert at Skibo Cafe and a chance to win a Healthy U stadium blanket or free meal block at a campus dining location.

The survey, which began on Oct. 17, will end between Nov. 1 and Nov. 6. Students can take the survey online via the link in Barkin's campus wide email.