Sunday, January 19, 2020
Liberty Ballroom J, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Background and Purpose: Evidence suggests that college students experience high levels of stress and are at disproportionate risk for mental health problems compared to other groups. College students who identify as a member of a diverse ethnic/racial group, and those who are female, may also experience disproportionate stressors associated with college life, thereby influencing their stress and mental health functioning. Furthermore, links between mental health problems, stress, and poor academic performance have been established in a variety of college student populations. Theoretically, the relationship between these factors could be accounted for by the level of one’s psychological flexibility. When applied to academics, the psychological flexibility model suggests that academic difficulties could be influenced by a students’ reluctance to engage with challenging internal experiences (thoughts and/or feelings) that inevitably come up during difficult experiences related to course work, thought experiments, and novel social interactions associated with higher education. Prior research has shown that this inability or unwillingness to approach difficult internal experiences results in cognitive and behavioral rigidity and makes it unlikely that a student will engage in behaviors necessary for academic success. However, research on the mediating effects of psychological flexibility among undergraduate students are lacking. Therefore, we examined whether psychological flexibility mediated the relationship between co-occurring mental health functioning and stress on academic performance among a large sample of undergraduate college students. Methods: An anonymous web-based survey was conducted among undergraduate college students from a university in the midwestern United States (n=985; female=68%; white=86%; heterosexual=89%; freshman=24%; sophomore=22%; junior=25%; senior=22%; fifth year+=7%). Almost one-half (54%) reported that they were between the ages of 18-20 and approximately two-thirds (68%) reported that they had a grade point average (GPA) between 3.0 and 4.0. Results: A path analysis revealed that, while controlling for gender and racial/ethnic minority status, lower mental health functioning and greater stress were related to less psychological flexibility, and less psychological flexibility was related to lower GPA. Additionally, psychological flexibility mediated the effects of stress and poor mental health on GPA. Conclusions & Implications: Results indicated that psychological flexibility mediates the relationships between mental health functioning and academic performance. College students who report high levels of stress and problems related to mental health may benefit from interventions designed to increase psychological flexibility. Results from this study also showed that this model held constant while controlling for gender and racial/ethnic minority status, suggesting that this model is robust across college student groups. Social workers engaged in counseling with college students should therefore consider assessing for psychological flexibility and implementing related interventions as part of their practice.