Abstract: Integrating Foster Care History and Mental Health Stress within an Emergent College Student Identity (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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74P Integrating Foster Care History and Mental Health Stress within an Emergent College Student Identity

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Rebecca Miller, M.S.Ed., Senior Research Assistant, Portland State University, Portland, OR
Jennifer Blakeslee, PhD, Research Assistant Professor, Portland State University, Portland, OR
Chanel Ison, Undergraduate Student, Portland State University, Portland, OR
Background and Purpose: Post-secondary students with foster care histories face unique challenges in college settings, including higher rates of mental health difficulties, and the promotion of academic success and student identity development must therefore be understood in the context of these barriers. This study was conducted to better understand the perspectives of college students with foster care histories and self-identified mental health concerns (N=18) about how these interrelated factors may influence their academic experiences. Additionally, we explore how foster care-related experiences may introduce potential tensions that make it more difficult for these students to successfully develop an emergent college student identity along a typical pathway or at a typical pace, as compared to their student peers.

Methods: This qualitative sub-study was conducted with participants recruited from a larger intervention study with college students aged 18-26 with foster care histories and mental health stressors. Interview participants (N=18) were aged 21.63 on average; 72% identified as female, 78% as non-White or mixed race, and 28% as LGBTQIA; 66% were enrolled in community college and 33% were attending the university where the study was conducted. The semi-structured interview protocol included questions about academic experiences and student identity, how these were influenced by foster care history and/or mental health stressors, and use of campus-based resources to support mental health. Interviews were recorded and transcribed, then loaded into qualitative software for open coding by two researchers, followed by thematic analysis to organize the codes into emergent patterns and themes.

Results: We identified three high-level themes in the data. First, nearly all participants reported feelings of otherness related to their foster care experiences and how these set them apart from student peers. Next, many described compounding stressors as mental health, academic, and social stressors accumulated, including challenges related to their foster care history. Additionally, several described self-reliance even when they knew student resources were available, and related this to foster care experiences and difficulty finding people on campus who understood their background. Recommendations for improving student experiences include mental health services provided by people familiar with foster care, access to foster student-specific programs providing social, emotional, and academic support, and campus-wide efforts to raise awareness.

Conclusions and Implications: Study participants make a case for programming to help with managing challenges related to overwhelming emotions in response to compounding stressors, balancing self-reliance with help-seeking when needed, and developing interpersonal relationships that reduce feelings of otherness in the campus context. Our study validates the literature around campus-based support programs tailored specifically to college students with foster care histories, delivered by staff with awareness of how foster care backgrounds may influence mental health and academic success. Our study also suggests that foster care-related experiences play a critical role in the emergence of college student identity in the campus context, especially when intertwined with mental health stress; this lens reveals areas for new or renewed focus in supporting the integration of foster care identity and experiences, including related mental health challenges, within the larger process of emergent college student identity.