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New Findings: Natural Mentoring Relationships Can Advance College Students’ Emotional Regulation and Mental Health

The transition to college involves a number of novel stressors for young adults and represents a period of heightened risk for the onset or worsening of diverse mental health problems. The presence of natural mentors may be one factor which alleviates risk for mental health problems in college first-year students. Using a diverse sample of 275 first-year college students, the present study examined the effects of different types of natural mentors within students’ support networks on internalizing symptoms during the first semester of college. In addition, analyses explored whether different student approaches to emotion regulation were one mechanism by which natural mentors influence internalizing symptoms. Path analyses indicated that students with a greater number of close family member/family friend mentors reported less emotion suppression, which in turn accounted for the associations between these mentoring relationships and reduced depressive symptoms and worry at follow-up. In contrast, less emotionally close mentors, such as teachers or coworkers, did not significantly shape emotion regulation strategies or internalizing symptom outcomes. Results have implications for the design of more targeted interventions that promote emotional well-being in college first-year students.

Highlights (from article)

  • Natural mentoring relationships may exert protective effects through emotion regulation processes.
  • Underrepresented college students report having fewer natural mentoring relationships.
  • Strong ties are associated with depression and worry in part via reduced emotion suppression.
  • Less emotionally close ties are not associated with mentee emotion regulation strategies.
Introduction (excerpted from article)Mental health concerns are a growing problem on college campuses, with up to one in every three students reporting mental health issues such as depression and post-traumatic stress (American College Health Association, 2019; Bruffaerts et al., 2018). The initial transition to college appears to be an especially risky time during one’s college experience, as young adults must navigate issues of developing their adult identities, while also gaining increased independence from family supports (sometimes moving away from home to live on-campus), creating new social networks, and adjusting to more rigorous academic expectations (Garett et al., 2017; Thurber & Walton, 2012). In fact, one in three first-year students reporting problems with their mental health, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation (Bruffaerts et al., 2018), and first-year students in college perceive more stress and report poorer emotional well-being compared to undergraduate students at other points in their college career (Pryor et al., 2010). This decreased emotional well-being, in turn, can portend a number of long-term adverse outcomes such as academic difficulties, economic marginalization, and relational dysfunction (Goldman-Mellor et al., 2014; Kerr & Capaldi, 2011).Natural mentoring relationships may serve a similar role in offsetting risk for college students, particularly for students who may be especially vulnerable to the challenges of transitioning to college. For example, one study showed that college students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds who retained a greater number of natural mentors throughout their first year of college showed reductions in depressive symptoms across that same year (Hurd et al., 2016). Furthermore, the presence of natural mentors in the form of student–faculty interaction has been positively associated with college students’ academic motivation and overall satisfaction in their educational pursuits, exemplifying how natural mentors may enhance college students’ ability to thrive academically and professionally, as well as personally (Kuh & Hu, 2001; Trolian et al., 2016). Thus, initial evidence suggests that natural mentors can play a key role in bolstering mental well-being during college.The present study was designed to explore associations between natural mentoring relationships and two specific emotion regulation strategies that have received widespread attention in the literature: (1) emotion suppression, or the purposeful reduction of expression of emotions when in an emotional state; and (2) cognitive reappraisal, or the reinterpreting of an emotion invoking stimulus as less emotional or less emotionally threatening (Gross & John, 2003).Results and Discussion
To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the extent to which different types of natural mentoring relationships may predict psychological outcomes during college via their associations with specific emotion regulation strategies. In line with our hypotheses, increased presence of strong mentoring ties was associated with reduced depressive symptomatology and worry in part via the association between strong ties and lower levels of emotion suppression. However, the presence of a larger number of strong mentoring ties did not predict students’ levels of cognitive reappraisal, and weak mentoring ties were not associated with either emotion regulation strategy, or the psychological outcomes of depression and worry.The fact that strong mentoring ties are associated with lower levels of depression and worry via lower levels of emotion suppression may speak to how strong ties can serve as a type of healthy attachment that bolsters first-year college students’ resilient coping strategies…The lack of an association between weak mentoring ties and mental health symptoms as well as emotion regulation skills speaks to the importance of disaggregating strong and weak ties when examining the influence of natural mentors on health outcomes. …These results have important implications for theories detailing the potential mechanisms of mentors’ effects on youth development, particularly during the transition to college. Building upon these findings in future studies could assist colleges and universities with designing and implementing effective programming designed to leverage college students’ social networks to support their mental health (Chapman-Hilliard & Beasley, 2018). Such programming could play a critical role in supporting populations of students who may be particularly vulnerable to mental health risks during this critical developmental stage and promote equity in rates of college success and persistence for all students.