TORONTO - They may have come in for a sprained ankle or to refill their birth control prescriptions, but almost one in five university students visiting their school's health clinics reported being victims of violence in the past six months, a new study shows.
The rate surprised Elizabeth Saewyc, a professor at the University of British Columbia's school of nursing, and the head researcher of the study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Saewyc was more surprised that gender didn't make a difference - 16 per cent of women and 17 per cent of men reported either emotional or physical violence in the past six months.
Researchers set out to explore gender differences in the prevalence, types and perpetrators of violence experienced, at the University of Washington, three campuses of the University of Wisconsin and UBC.
Students who entered health clinics for anything from a sprained ankle to new birth control pills were asked to fill out a short survey.
The results at campuses in Canada and the U.S. were consistent.
Almost 15 per cent of women and nine per cent of men who entered the clinics reported emotional violence. But when it came to physical violence, the numbers were reversed. Only three per cent of women reported physical violence in the past six months and nine per cent of men.
Emotional violence was narrowly defined as repeated ridicule, threatening statements, destroying belongings and unreasonable jealousy.
The rate of intimate partner violence reported by young men is a phenomenon that didn't receive much attention prior to this study, Saewyc said.
Most studies had looked at intimate partner violence but only with women or perpetrator violence only with men. This study looked at both.
"It makes it really clear that our students really need some more help in figuring out healthy relationships."
Saewyc said there are three major lessons that universities and their students should learn from the findings. Educating students about handling conflict and healthy relationships and screening men, as well as women, for violence exposure, are key.
Importantly, Saewyc said most students reported that the violence had occurred when alcohol was involved. One in three women and nearly two-thirds of men reported they had been drinking when a violent act occurred.
While there are many university campaigns centred on the dangers of drinking and driving, and some on alcoholism, schools lack awareness campaigns about more immediate risks like an increase in the likelihood of violence, Saewyc said.
"Even party drinking can create some risks and you should be aware of that."
"These are young people who are not drinking heavily like alcoholics. These are young people who are maybe getting drunk once on the weekend or at a party but they're still at risk for experiencing violence and that can really change your life."
Sexual assaults reported in 2007 at York University in Toronto and Carleton University in Ottawa brought attention to the issue of violence on university campuses.
Carleton responded with an internal safety audit which resulted in a $1.6-million campus security upgrade for measures like adding surveillance cameras, emergency phones and safe paths, said Beth Gorham, the university's manager of public affairs.
Since then, there's been a 40 per cent decline in violent incidents on campus.
"It's been very successful in terms of making people aware of issues and encouraging a climate of safety and feeling of comfort."
But Saewyc said walking down that dark path is not necessarily what should instil fear in students, but "when you open the door at the end."
One in four incidents of violence reported were perpetrated by romantic partners, while stranger violence was far less common.
"Part of the challenge of security measures is they're great if you're talking about stranger violence or a fight that erupts at a big party or bar brawl," Saewyc said.
"But a fair amount of violence is among romantic partners or roommates. It's taking place between two people behind closed doors and it's not going to show up on video cameras."