New study investigates how natural mentoring affects college students’ mental health

Le, T. P., Hsu, T., & Raposa, E. B. (2021). Effects of Natural Mentoring Relationships on College Students’ Mental Health: The Role of Emotion Regulation. American Journal of Community Psychology, n/a(n/a). https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12504

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although social support is a major protective factor of college-related stressors, not many studies explore the impact natural mentoring relationships have on college students. 
  • This study assesses how different types of natural mentoring (i.e. emotion suppression and cognitive reappraisal) affect students’ emotional regulation during their first semester of college.
  • Findings demonstrate that strong mentoring relationships correlate with lower levels of depressive symptoms and worry and that low-quality bonds don’t correlate with emotion regulation strategies.
  • Results also indicate that increased strong mentoring connections don’t predict college students’ cognitive reappraisal levels and that weak mentoring relationships don’t correlate with emotional regulation strategies or worry & depression outcomes. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

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.

Implications (Reprinted from the 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. Of course, the associations among natural mentoring support, emotion regulation, and psychological outcomes are doubtless transactional, with multi‐directional effects that are not able to be precisely determined in these correlational analyses. It is possible (and indeed likely) that individuals who tend to be more emotionally expressive are also better equipped to develop and maintain emotionally close mentoring relationships with strong ties. Nevertheless, this finding is consistent with both conceptual and empirical literature suggesting that strong ties may be especially beneficial for emotional well‐being in the face of major life transitions (Raposa & Hurd, 2018; Wellmann & Wortley, 1990), with individuals often relying on strong ties when dealing with life stressors (Kammrath et al., 2020). In particular, these emotionally close relationships may serve as a source of support in which first‐year students are able to actively discuss and process their difficult emotions and, at the same time, reduce the extent to which they engage in maladaptive emotion regulation strategies, like emotion suppression (Theran, 2010).

It is interesting that neither strong nor weak mentoring ties influenced the extent to which first‐year college students reported engaging in cognitive reappraisal, a particularly well‐studied and adaptive strategy of emotion regulation. Perhaps this lack of an association stems from the fact that cognitive reappraisal is often a more purposeful strategy of emotion regulation. Building the skill of cognitive reappraisal often requires that an individual prepare for the emotional stimulus ahead of time so that they can shift their response (Gross & John, 2003). Indeed, past research highlights the extent to which teaching cognitive reappraisal to reduce psychological distress tends to require repeated, targeted intervention before individuals can utilize the skill without prompting (Denny & Ochsner, 2014; Fink et al., 2018).

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