The transition from high school to college is one of the most dramatic transitions a person will make in their lifetime. Students who go away to college experience unsupervised freedom, in addition to exposure to new and exciting things. Many college students experiment with new activities, new relationships, and new risky behaviors during their first year away from home. Alcohol consumption, drug use, and smoking are among the most common activities that first-year students are exposed to. Although many teens may have already been introduced to some of these activities in high school, the frequency of them tends to be more visible, tolerated, and prevalent in the college environment. Cigarette smoking is one behavior that can have long-term negative health consequences. Understanding the factors that contribute to smoking escalation during the first year in college can help researchers design effective and applicable cessation interventions.
Post-traumatic stress (PTSD) has long been linked with negative coping strategies. For students with a history of PTSD symptoms, the added social, financial, and academic pressure of entering college may exacerbate the stressful symptoms of PTSD and result in higher rates of smoking. To test this theory, Jennifer P. Read of the Department of Psychology and the University at Buffalo of the Statue University of New York recently assessed 346 self-reported smokers as they entered their freshman year of college. She evaluated their levels of PTSD and their smoking frequency prior to the beginning of fall classes, and five more times throughout their first academic year.
Read discovered that the transition from high school to college directly increased smoking frequency in all of the students, with or without PTSD. Upon further examination she found that the students without PTSD saw a slight increase in smoking during the fall semester but then a decline during the spring semester. In contrast, the participants with PTSD saw the same increase in the fall, but significant and steady increases throughout the spring. These findings suggest that the students with PTSD may rely more heavily on smoking as a coping mechanism as their college experience unfolds. Read added, “Taken together, this suggests that it may be how those with PTSD manage the challenges of the college environment over time that is relevant for smoking behavior.” She hopes that these findings help identify first-year college students at risk for negative coping strategies such as smoking.
Read, J. P., Wardell, J. D., Vermont, L. N., Colder, C. R., Ouimette, P., White, J. (2012). Transition and change: prospective effects of posttraumatic stress on smoking trajectories in the first year of college. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029085
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