In August 2016 a low-pressure system deposited 25.5 inches of rain in a dense, urban area in a Gulf Coast state: The event was coined the Great Flood (GF). Consistent with the mission of the profession, social work students served as volunteers, providing disaster relief services within affected communities. One correlational study, to date, has described these students’ experiences, mental health, and coping responses following the GF. Rooted in constructivist, self-development theory, which frames coping responses following stressful experiences as either adaptive (acceptance) or maladaptive (denial), the current study examined the extent to which student race (African American, white) moderated the association between four protective factors: hope (8-item Hope Scale), optimism (8-item Life Orientation Test), religiosity (Three-Factor Religiosity Scale), spiritual support (12-item Spiritual Support); and eight adaptive coping strategies (28-item Brief COPE), while controlling for age and gender.
Cross-sectional data were collected from a convenience sample of social work students (N=186) enrolled in two public universities in the Gulf Coast during the 2016 fall semester approximately three months after the GF. Four protective factors (hope, optimism, religiosity, spiritual support) and eight adaptive coping strategies (acceptance, active coping, positive reframing, self-distraction, planning, venting, emotional support, and instrumental support) comprised the independent and dependent variables, respectively. Race was a moderator, and age (M=25.86, SD=7.22) and gender (female=85.6%) were control variables. Multiple linear regression analyses were conducted using separate adaptive coping strategies as dependent variables.
Among the four protective factors, spiritual support was consistently associated with all eight adaptive coping strategies. Additionally, optimism was significantly associated with venting. The interaction results revealed that race (African American=51.7%) significantly moderated the associations between spiritual support and active coping (B=-0.12, p<.01), spiritual support and positive reframing (B=-0.08, p<.05), spiritual support and self-distraction (B=-0.09, p<.05), and spiritual support and planning (B=-0.08, p<.05). The decomposition of the significant interactions consistently indicated that when African-American students had lower levels of spiritual support, their levels of active coping, positive reframing, self-distraction, and planning were lower, but when spiritual support levels were higher, adaptive coping strategies were also higher. However, these associations were not significant for white students. Regardless of spiritual support levels, white students’ active coping, positive reframing, self-distraction, and planning levels were higher, as compared to African-American students.
Results underscore the importance of spiritual support to social work students' adaptive coping in the aftermath of a community-wide catastrophe. However, higher levels of spiritual support more so benefited African-American than white students, whose use of half of the active coping strategies were consistently higher than that of African-American students. Spirituality has historically been a resource-laden dimension of African-American life. Understanding the differential effects of race-moderated associations on social work students' post-disaster adaptive coping is an important step for achieving equity in the classroom.