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Looking past the outbreak

In light of the recent meningitis cases on campus and the ensuing news coverage that has catapulted us into the national media spotlight, we should take a step back and consider the general state of public health among the undergraduate student body here at Princeton. Seventy-six percent of the interviewed respondents in The Daily Princetonian’s poll last week said they would accept the meningitis B vaccine not yet licensed by the FDA. Based on previous years’ numbers for FluFest, the annual flu vaccination clinics offered through University Health Services, an increasing majority of Princeton students and faculty elect to receive the flu vaccine each year. However, if we look past these highly visible and well-publicized threats to the student body’s health, there are many more issues that are largely ignored amid the fear, uncertainty and doubt surrounding the meningitis outbreak.

UHS has a widespread presence on campus.In every bathroom, the sinks are accompanied by laminated posters reminding us all to wash our hands for at least 20 seconds, to make sure we use soap and to turn off the faucet with a paper towel instead of touching the dirty faucet handles. However, these directions go largely unheeded by the hundreds of students who pass through the bathrooms in Frist Campus Center, Dillon Gymnasium and other high-traffic buildings. I doubt that anyone has conducted a controlled study on the percentage of bathroom visits that actually conform to the UHS recommendations, but personally, I have never seen anyone use a paper towel to turn off a sink faucet. Near every computer cluster is a poster reminding students to follow the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look away from the screen for 20 seconds at something 20 feet away —but how many of us notice these signs, let alone follow their advice? The recent UHS campaign to “Keep Healthy and Carry On” and the Student Health Advisory Board program that came up with the “Mine. Not Yours.” cups have achieved relatively high visibility on campus but only because of the hubbub surrounding the meningitis outbreak. Long-term projects, such as UHS’s online collection of information and advice on “hot topics” in student health, are often unnoticed or ignored. It took a catchy slogan like “Keep Healthy and Carry On” printed on colorful posters to remind students not to share drinks or utensils, and still these warnings seem to end up being taken like worried advice from overprotective parents —something to be satirized instead of taken seriously.


In reality, there already exist several issues with the overall health, both physical and mental, of the student body, most of which are far more of a threat in the long term than meningitis or the flu. Although contagious diseases like meningitis and the flu are certainly urgent concerns and should not be shrugged off easily, some of the biggest dangers to students’ health come from damage that we do to ourselves. Even if we ignore controversial topics like alcohol use or recreational drug use, there are many incredibly unhealthy behaviors that many students engage in regularly, the effects of which may not truly be felt until years after graduation. For non-athletes, exercise is one of the first healthy behaviors to be sacrificed when work starts piling up. Despite the proven benefits of even just getting up and stretching or taking a quick walk, students force themselves to stay put in un-ergonomic chairs and to slave away.

In the case of “sleep hygiene,” there seems to be a relatively clear division on campus between those who sleep regular hours every day and in appropriate amounts, and those who sleep at irregular times and generally do not obtain adequate sleep. Almost all Princeton students have experienced the effects of sleep deprivation at some point, yet most of us still go to sleep too late, wake up too early and partake in copious amounts of caffeine to keep ourselves going throughout the day. Hunching over our desks to read textbooks printed in miniscule fonts, keeping our eyes glued to a computer screen for work and then for entertainment and snacking on unhealthy processed foods as we study —these are all behaviors that put unnecessary stress on our bodies. The old joke of “sleep, social life, grades —pick two” aptly sums up the dilemma that Princeton students face on a regular basis —replace “sleep” with “exercise,” and the same principle still holds. The psychological effects of self-induced stress are not to be underestimated either —the effects of sleep deprivation, lack of exercise or unhealthy eating are all exacerbated when mental health is thrown into the mix, whether that entails stress over workload and grades or an eating disorder or issues with self-image.

Shifting and distorting our sleep schedules, eating unhealthy junk at random times and slouching over a computer screen might work for four years of college, for a few more years of medical school, for the first few years at a finance job, but eventually our bad habits will catch up to us. If we truly want to “Keep Healthy and Carry On” in our post-Princeton lives, it will take more than just red cups and colorful posters.

Spencer Shen is a sophomore from Austin, Texas. He can be reached at