In this post we will be summarizing and briefly discussing the peer-reviewed article “Perceived Stress, Substance Use, and Mental Health Issues Among College Students in the Midwest” a 2019 study published by Stowell, Lewis, and Brooks in the Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community. The study was primarily designed to evaluate the relationship between stress and mental health in a sample of college students.

What did they do?

The authors of this study evaluated stress and other behavioral indicators of well being in a college student sample. They then statistically assessed differences across genders and ethnic groups, and evaluated the correlational relationship between their variables of interest.

Why did they do it?

The authors highlight clearly in their introduction that substance use, stress, and overall mental health of college students is currently a major concern. As cited by the article, nearly half of college students report feeling stressed about college, and approximately one third of students report mental health problems, with depression and anxiety at the top of the list. Stress is often a precursor of mental health disorders, or at the very least a contributing factor in many cases.

Substance use is a highly concerning problem on college campuses. Why? As the authors reported, there is an added accessibility to substances on college campuses where students are no longer under constant supervision of parents and/or caretakers. As is well known, excessive alcohol/substance use contributes to an increased risk of automobile accidents, sexual assault, and general risk taking, which are major concerns, specifically for colleges.

Given these facts, a closer inspection of the relationship between stress, mental health, and substance use on college campuses is critical.

How did they do it?

The study was carried out with a sample of 442 college students (freshmen through graduate students) aged 18-56 (59% female). Researchers used an 80-item survey, collectively including measures of mental health (Positive and Negative Affect Scale [PANAS], Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale-Revised [CESD-R], and the Perceived Stress Scale), behavioral health (defined as physical health, nutritional health, and substance use questions), and demographic information.

What did they find?

Approximately 10% of participants endorsed high perceived stress (N = 50) and 56% of participants endorsed experiencing moderate stress (N = 261). Small magnitude differences were present in mean scores for males and females on the Perceived Stress Scale, with females (M = 17.58, SD = 7.09) displaying higher average scores than males (M = 15.52, SD = 7.09). Additionally, 36% of the total sample met threshold for risk of clinical depression based on CESD-R scores. Lastly, and quite interestingly, 79% of the participants in this study scored higher on the negative affect scale when compared to the 1998 average score on the same scale.

The authors also examined group differences on average depression, negative affect, and stress scores between minority and non-minority groups. They concluded that Caucasian participants (M = 13.28, SD = 11.95) displayed significantly higher mean scores on the CESD-R depression scale than non-Caucasian participants (M = 16.56, SD = 12.39).

Statistically significant correlations (of small magnitude, however) between CESD-R scores and binge drinking and marijuana use were identified. Additionally, strong relationships between perceived stress, affect, and depression were demonstrated.

What does it all mean (our take)?

This study set forth to evaluate the relationship between stress, mental health, and substance use in college students. We will note that there are several important factors that need to be considered when interpreting the data from this study:

  1. Data was collected from students at a Midwestern University - as such, results may not generalize to all college students.
  2. The statistical approach (t-tests and correlations) precludes any discussion of potential causality.
  3. While statistically significant, some of the correlations demonstrated weak relationships between variables of interest.

Nevertheless, the authors did demonstrate the main point - difficulties with stress, mental health, and substance use are prominent among college students and there is certainly a relationship between these variables that we (as providers and educators) should be paying close attention to. But the question is - how can we use this knowledge to actually help these students? It’s one thing to know about a problem, but it’s another thing to create a solution.

Like many other large scale problems these days, the solution lies within the hands of leveraging technology. Scalable solutions will need to be able to thoroughly, yet efficiently, evaluate all students across all campuses and provide them with resources as needed.

While we should always strive to continue highlighting societal problems in the realm of mental health, we at Mindyra think it’s time to start incorporating some solutions.

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