Distress and resilience among marginalized undergraduates

Nurius, P. S., Sefidgar, Y. S., Kuehn, K. S, Jake, X, Zhang, H., Browning, A., Riskin, E., Dey, A. K., & Mankoff, J.  Distress among undergraduates: Marginality, stressors and resilience supports. Journal of American College Health, 1-9.

Stress and related mental health struggles are of growing concern at colleges and universities across the country and internationally, with some evidence of levels higher than general population peers. The university experience can pose considerable strain on students, in some cases adding to early and current life stressors, and, if not mitigated, can lead to impaired well-being and academic success/retention.

This study provides a 2019 data snapshot of multiple stressor effects on early-stage students, resilience resources (or the lack thereof) that can mitigate these effects, and sociodemographic characteristics reflecting minoritized identities. Participants were 253 first- and second-year undergraduate students (age =18.76; 49.80% male, 69% students of color) enrolled at the University of Washington.

Multivariate analysis demonstrated significant associations between greater stress exposures and lower levels of resilience resources with each of three mental health indicators—perceived stress (intensity of experienced stress), depression, and anxiety. Stressors such as poor physical health, discrimination exposure, experiencing one or more marginalizing status (e.g., first generation student, having disabilities, sexual minority), and using maladaptive coping strategies (e.g, denial, self-blame) significantly accounted for each of the mental health indicators. Prior stressors such as adverse childhood experiences and other life and academic adversities were also significantly correlated with the mental health variables.

Race/ethnicity was less clearly patterned, although students of Asian descent reported significantly greater depression and anxiety, and females reported higher levels on all distress forms. In terms of resilience supports, those reporting greater social support and perception of oneself as a “bounce back” kind of person reported lesser psychological distress and these variables reduced the effects of stressors. Assessment of student well-being from this same project during the 2020 COVID-19 context indicated that students entering the pandemic with mental health vulnerabilities experienced significantly greater psychological distress and academic strain as the university pivoted toward remote instruction, signaling highly consequential differences (Morris et al., 2021)

These results support the value of “poly-strengths” –multiple forms of resilience- fostering resources–for mitigating the effects of stressors on psychological distress. College leaders are noting increases in the severity of students’ mental health concerns and demand for services, changing the roles of campus counseling centers, and requiring new institutional responses. Better understanding cumulative stress/resilience resource profiles, particularly among marginalized students and those experiencing discrimination, can help universities in prioritizing institutional support responses toward prevention, strengthening resilience, and mitigating psychological distress.