For many first-year students, excessive drinking and recreational drug use are part of the university experience. However, substance use can take a toll on their mental health, particularly in male students.

A new campaign launched at Dalhousie University aims to help those students.

“Typically, for heavy drinking, it is about twice as common in first-year undergraduate males,” says Dr. Sherry Stewart, professor of psychiatry and psychology. “We also know that use of illicit substances is about one-and-a-half times as high.”

This year, Dalhousie is one of three Canadian Universities taking part in the Caring Campus Project, which aims to reduce substance use on campus in order to improve mental health.

Stewart says the three-year project will be carried out in two phases.

During phase 1, all first-year students will be invited to complete a questionnaire regarding the use of alcohol, illegal drugs, and prescription medications.

“Even though substance use rates are high, students perceive them to actually be even higher than they actually are and this is the thought to be one factor that can drive students to engage in higher and higher substance use rates, because they’re trying to match to an unrealistic norm,” says Stewart.

That data will be used to implement phase 2, which will include education and one-to-one peer support.

“There’s going to be a student summit, where we’ll bring in students from higher years to help us organize what would be effective and working on campus,” says Stewart.

Dr. Michael Teehan is the assistant dean of student affairs for Dalhousie’s Faculty of Medicine. He says there is a good reason why the Caring Campus Project will focus specifically on first-year male students.

“They are a particularly vulnerable group when they join university for the first time,” says Teehan. “They’re leaving their natural supports behind a lot of the time, very subject to peer pressure.”    

That pressure often leads to substance abuse, which can result in mental health concerns.

“Depression is much higher, is linked to heavy use of alcohol, and depression with its ultimate and very tragic outcome sometimes does occur and is linked to the use of alcohol,” says Teehan.

The goal of the project is to help young men manage the risk associated with substance use and reduce the stigma attached to mental health.

“We are hoping that we’ll be able to influence the culture of the campus, so that the acceptance of heavy drinking as a norm, and the misinterpretation by young people that this is normal, will change,” says Teehan.