The more students are "engaged" in their academic work, the less likely they are to drink heavily or abuse drugs. But academic engagement does not seem to have any effect, positively or negatively, on students' overall mental health, although it does seem to add to the level of stress they feel.
Those are among the findings of a new study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, which was released over the weekend at the second annual meeting of the Bringing Theory to Practice Project. The project,  which is sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and financed by the Charles Engelhard Foundation, was founded in 2003 to explore whether students' health (and mental health) could be improved by enhancing their academic experiences.
Joyce A. Bylander, associate provost for campus academic life at Dickinson College and a member of the project's planning committee, said that officials of the group had had "hunches" based on anecdotal evidence on their campuses about what drives students to drink and toward depression, and about whether engaging them more in academic life might make a difference. "But we as academics realized," she said, "that hunches were insufficient, and that what we needed was good research."
So the group enlisted the center  at Columbia last year to study the connections between substance abuse, mental health and what the group calls "engaged learning" -- educational experiences in which students participate actively, from which they derive meaning, and to which they feel connected.
While studies like the National Survey of Student Engagement  have explored the quality of students' academic experiences, and groups like the American College Health Association regularly examine student mental health and substance abuse, the Columbia center's work presents the "first national survey data" on the links between what students do in the classroom and these health factors, said Susan Foster, vice president and director for policy research and analysis at the center.
Although the main purpose of the study was to explore the relationships between academic engagement and mental health and substance abuse, the survey (through telephone interviews of 2,000 nationally representative students at four-year colleges) the Columbia center first sought to measure the extent of those factors among the students.
In terms of whether students did or did not feel engaged in their academic work, the news was good and bad. Positively, 88 percent of students said they frequently or occasionally felt as if their involvement in a course was valued by faculty members, and 71 percent said they frequently or occasionally had academic experiences that "had inspired them or otherwise affected them by significantly changing their perspective."
But nearly two-thirds said they had never or rarely worked closely with a faculty member on a research project or other form of study in which they played a meaningful role. (Importantly, students took the blame themselves for this problem: 47 percent said they had never sought out such an experience, and 81 percent said professors and administrators actively encouraged students to participate in this way.)
Eighty-eight percent of students said they viewed stress as a moderately or very large problem on their campuses. Seventy-six percent of respondents cited schoolwork as their main source of stress, followed by 41 percent who blamed financial pressures and 33 percent who said concerns about post-college plans.
Although reports of serious forms of mental illness were far from the norm -- 12 percent said they'd been diagnosed with depression, 6 percent reported diagnoses of anxiety disorders, 6 percent said they were in therapy, and 7 percent said they were taking prescribed medication for psychological problems -- "subclinical" symptoms of depression and anxiety were prevalent, the survey found. More than half reported frequently having felt mentally exhausted, 19 percent frequently felt that "things were hopeless," and 11 percent frequently felt "so depressed it was difficult to function."
Students mentioned relieving stress and anxiety as one of their primary reasons for drug and alcohol use, which was prevalent.
Two-thirds of respondents described themselves as current drinkers, and nearly two in five of those students reported drinking frequently (six or more days in the previous month). About one in four of current drinkers said they they had binged (more than five drinks in one day) in the previous 30 days, and about 6 percent of students described themselves as heavy drinkers -- those who had binged 6 or more times in 30 days. In the previous 30 days, 13 percent of respondents said they had used marijuana, and 1 percent had used cocaine and club drugs. But 13.5 percent said they had at some point in their lives misused prescription drugs that were not prescribed for them, and more than 3 percent said they were doing so currently.
Connecting the Dots
In a finding that is probably heartening to officials at the Bringing Theory to Practice project, students whom the study defines as actively engaged in their academic work are significantly less likely than their peers to report being binge drinkers (59.7 percent vs. 64.7 percent), to using cocaine now and to having misused prescription painkillers (7.4 percent vs. 9.9 percent).
Although more actively engaged students were also less likely to drink, smoke, and use marijuana, the results for those activities were not statistically significant, Foster said.
(Students who report spending more hours engaged in nonrequired campus or community service, like tutoring or volunteering, are also significantly less likely than their peers to drink or abuse certain drugs, the study found. But while the trends generally suggest that actively involved students are less prone to substance abuse, the survey found one major exception: Students who are heavily involved in political activities are significantly more likely than their peers to drink heavily and to use and abuse drugs. Why? "One possible explanation for this finding is that political activism attracts a different kind of student than service or volunteerism," the report of the survey suggests.)
One important finding of the Columbia study is that there appears to be no connection between the level of students' academic engagement and their mental health; in other words, "more engaged students are no more (or less) likely than less engaged students to report feeling hopeless, very sad, depressed or to have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder," the study finds.
But "engaged students" were also more likely than other students to report feeling very or somewhat stressed by their academic work (74.6 percent vs. 68.2 percent) and by their extracurricular activities (34.9 percent vs. 21.8 percent), and to feel overwhelmed by all they have to do (77.7 percent vs. 72.2) and very anxious (33.5 percent vs. 28.4 percent).
That finding offers a "cautionary note" to college officials who might hope to increase students' academic engagement, Foster said, because it's clear we need to know "how to help them balance" any intensified academic work and their other priorities.
Foster also warned that because the study suggests "correlations, not causality," "we can't say that engaged learning reduces substance abuse or increases stress."
"All we can know," she said, "is that it might have some beneficial effect if we do it right."