Report shows impact of emotional stress, importance of support networks

Although higher education institutions have increased efforts to support students experiencing mental health challenges, a new report from the Lumina Foundation and Gallup highlights the prevalence of emotional stress and how it affects college attainment.

The report, titled Stressed Out and Stopping Out: The Mental Health Crisis in Higher Education, analyzes data collected in Fall 2022 from online surveys of 12,015 U.S. adults aged 18 to 59 who have a high school degree/diploma or equivalent and have not yet completed an associate or bachelor’s degree. It finds that 41% of students enrolled in a postsecondary education program said they thought about stopping out in the past six months, a slight increase from 2021 (37%) and 2020 (34%).

Even as fewer students are citing COVID-19 as a reason for stopping out, mental health challenges and emotional stress remain top concerns, the report says.

Related: Mental health, cost concerns driving students away from higher ed, report shows >

Lingering impact of stress, mental health challenges

Of those students thinking of stopping coursework, 55% of undergraduates, including 69% of bachelor’s degree students, cited “emotional stress” as a reason why they considered temporarily withdrawing from school, the most commonly cited reason students gave for considering stopping out. Students defined emotional stress as the result of coursework that could be overwhelming, combined with struggles to balance academic and caregiving responsibilities and other personal relationships. Others mentioned anxiety or depression specifically or college expenses that lead to stress. “Personal mental health reasons” was the second most popular reason, cited by 47% of respondents, including 59% of bachelor’s degree students.

Related: Students dialing back their academic effort to protect their mental health, survey finds >

Reports of emotional stress varied according to students’ gender and socioeconomic background. Forty percent of all students said they frequently experience emotional stress while attending college, with women more likely than men to report feeling that way (47% vs. 30%). Likewise, about half (49%) of students who said their family was poor and often struggled to pay monthly bills reported frequently experiencing emotional stress, compared to 38% of students from more financially secure backgrounds.

“The personal stressors that emerged during COVID didn’t disappear the day we got back to campus,” Zoe Ragouzeos, senior associate vice president of mental health and sexual misconduct support at New York University, told Inside Higher Ed. “Campuses nationally saw that students had not worked the muscle of interacting with each other face-to-face, so when they got back to campus…it continued to be stressful. I think that’s getting better, but it will take some time.”

Building positive relationships

Students who said they have positive relationships with faculty members, mentors, and peers were much less likely to feel frequent emotional stress than students without those positive supportive relationships. To ensure students thrive, colleges need to invest in students’ support networks, the report says.

“Institutions have to be ready to not only be able to equip their faculty and their staff and their students to identify a crisis, they have to equip the faculty, staff, and students to identify mental health,” Zainab Okolo, a strategy officer at Lumina Foundation, told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “What does it look like when their campus is flourishing?”

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