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Sex differences in the impact of secondhand harm from alcohol use

Alcohol use is a common part of university culture. A study at a Canadian university surveyed students aged 18-25 to examine how many students experienced secondhand harm from others’ alcohol use, and if those instances impacted their perception of belonging at the university and/or their mental health. This study was unique from past similar research in that it looked at sex as a variable.

Secondhand harm includes strains such as interrupted sleep or studying, threats such as physical or sexual harm, and interpersonal harm, which describes having arguments with or caring for friends who are intoxicated. Out of the students surveyed, 89% had experienced at least one form of secondhand harm in the past 30 days. Interpersonal harm was most common, and the most experiences reported included having studies or sleep interrupted and/or having to care for an intoxicated friend.

In terms of secondhand harm due to alcohol, male students were more likely to specifically associate strains with higher levels of stress. Females were more likely to report all three types of secondhand harm along with higher levels of anxiety, stress, and depression. Also, females were negatively impacted in their sense of belonging due to threats. This is potentially linked to feeling unsafe on their campus more often than males. For both males and females, interpersonal secondhand harm was the only type that negatively impacted mental health. The association between secondhand harm and mental health of students was not mediated by the students’ sense of belonging, although the results may be different if long-term exposure to secondhand harm was researched.

This study was limited to undergraduate university students who are exposed disproportionately to heavy alcohol use, and the sample was not diverse enough to generalize findings to other populations. However, this study did provide evidence that secondhand harm due to alcohol is prevalent for university students and can lead to negative mental health outcomes.

Take away: Many university students experience secondhand harm from alcohol use such as having sleep and studies interrupted as well as having to care for other intoxicated students. Female students reported that they experienced greater secondhand harm and experienced more negative mental health outcomes as a result compared to male students.

Davis-MacNevin, P., Thompson, K., Wood, D. (2018). Sex differences in the impact of secondhand harm from alcohol on student mental health and university sense of belonging. Addictive Behaviors Reports. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2018.09.012

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