Disturbances in psychological well-being are of growing concern at colleges nationally. Evidence indicates growing mental health problems (Gallagher, 2006), with some evidence of levels higher than non-college peers (Lunau, 2012). Undergraduates report higher rates of experiencing traumatic situations within the past year relative to graduate students, as well as greater negative effects of mental health problems on academic performance and retention (Wyatt & Oswalt, 2013). Because early life adversity and repeated stressors such as discrimination can negatively impact college student outcomes, greater attention is being paid to cumulative stress theory. Building on this, we undertake a cumulative stress and protective resources analysis of first-year students with a goal of informing campus services to better meet evolving student needs.
Data derive from a funded campus survey examining student stress and well-being among first-year undergraduates (n=253) from a large western public university Average age is 18.76; 49.80% male, 31.22% White, 4.74% Latinx, 48.62% Asian, 3.16% Black, and 12.25% Biracial. Demographics include: sex, race/ethnicity; social disadvantage summed index (e.g., disabled, immigrant, sexual minority, first-generation college student). Stressors included history of and recent adverse major life events (MLE), chronic discrimination exposure (CEDH), and poor health (CHIPS). Resilience resources included coping strategies (adaptive/maladaptive, Brief Cope), social support (2 way-SSS), and resilient self-concept (BRS). Mental health indicators include perceived stress (PSS), depression (BDI), anxiety (STAI). Variables were drawn from established scales and demonstrated very satisfactory psychometric properties.
With the exception of adaptive coping, all stressors and resilience resources were significantly correlated with all mental health indicators at the bivariate level. Hierarchical regressions of the three mental health indicators sequentially tested the explanatory utility of each of the above-identified three predictor sets: 1) demographics, 2) stressors, and 3) resilience resources. For each mental health outcome, the full regression models achieved significance, final R2 were robust, and each of the predictor blocks added significantly to the R2 change in each model. As hypothesized, both the stressor and resilience blocks significantly explained poorer mental health, controlling for shared variance with all other predictors. Social disadvantage was most contributive among the demographic characteristics. Discrimination exposure and poor health remained most robust among stressors alongside use of maladaptive coping strategies. In addition to direct effects, stepping in resilience resources significantly attenuated stressor effects on each mental health indicator, with resilient self-concept strongest within this block.
These results provide evidence of multiple pathways in explaining students’ perceived sense of stress as well as anxiety and depression—all of which impair learning and healthy transition to adulthood. Discrimination and social disadvantage effects point to causes of mental health disparities for students in marginalized statuses, that merit special institutional attention for prevention and mitigation. Interestingly, use of adaptive coping was not a significant contributor. However, both (avoidance of) higher use of maladaptive coping strategies and perceiving oneself to be resilient were particularly strong, and mutable resources. Discussion includes service implications alongside our team’s partnering with local services to accelerate translation of findings to strengthened practices.