Support matters! New study shows how stress and social support affect underrepresented students’ educational outcomes

Albright, J. N., & Hurd, N. M. (2021). Activism, social support, and trump-related distress: Exploring associations with mental health. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin  

Notes of Interest: 

  • The election of Donald Trump encouraged many college students to engage in activism.  
  • While activism can be an empowering and meaningful experience, it can still take a toll on individuals’ mental health.  
  • This study explores whether or not Trump-related distress, peer social support, and activism directly affected underrepresented college students’ mental health. 
    • More specifically, it examines if peer support moderates the relationship between Trump-related distress and activism. 
  • Although there were no interactive effects, results showed that increased Trump-related distress and increased participation in activism correlated with increased anxiety symptoms in students. 
  • Colleges need to foster an activist-friendly environment on their campuses and provide resources to support their students. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

The current study investigated whether distress related to the Trump presidency, activism, and peer social support may directly or interactively influence minoritized college students’ symptoms of anxiety and depression. In particular, the current study sought to identify whether peer support may moderate the interaction between Trump-related distress and activism such that when peer support is low, activism may exacerbate the negative effects of Trump-related distress on students’ mental health; however, when peer support is high, activism may mitigate the negative effects of Trump-related distress on students’ mental health. Participants in the current study included 319 college students attending a predominantly White institution in the Southeastern U.S. Students were eligible to participate in the study if they were either first-generation college students, students from historically underrepresented racial/ethnic minority groups, or students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Although results were not suggestive of interactive effects, results indicated that greater Trump-related distress and more engagement in activism were associated with increases in students’ symptoms of anxiety. The results of the current study suggest additional resources may need to be deployed by institutions and students’ support networks to bolster their psychological health in the context of Trump-related distress and their engagement in activism. 

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The current study examined whether peer support might moderate the nature of potential interactive effects between Trump-related distress and activism in the months following the 2016 presidential election. We expected that support from friends might moderate the potential interactive effects of Trump-related distress and activism, given the salience of peer relationships during the college years and the potential of activism to bolster mental health if it transpires within a supportive peer network. However, we did not find main or interactive effects of peer support on our mental health outcome variables. Instead, we found that both Trump-related distress and activism were negatively associated with symptoms of anxiety, suggesting that both factors may actually worsen minoritized students’ mental health. Findings align with theory and previous research pointing to the possibility that sociopolitical distress and activism may negatively influence symptoms of anxiety. Specifically, these findings offer empirical support for the high effort-low reward theoretical framework that guided our study (Baaker et al., 2000; Karasek & Theorell, 1990; Kovan & Dirkx, 2003). Students engaging in political activism may have experienced few payoffs in exchange for high amounts of effort which may have further contributed to symptoms of anxiety, especially given that this study was conducted at the very outset of the Trump presidency when there was a great deal of fear and uncertainty about what the next 4 years may bring. Our confidence in our findings is strengthened by the fact that our model accounted for previous levels of anxiety symptoms along with an array of potentially confounding variables (i.e., extraversion, family income, stressful life events, and gender).

The 2016 Trump campaign and early months of his presidency were characterized by the use of racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, ableist, and xenophobic rhetoric and proposed policies. Previous research suggests that anticipating further marginalization as a result of sociopolitical factors can harm mental health (Scheepers et al., 2009). Moreover, research suggests that biased rhetoric in the media may serve as a “sanction” for bias, thereby increasing overt prejudice and discrimination in the general population (Steuter & Wills, 2009). Being the target of discrimination has consistently been associated with adverse outcomes among targeted marginalized groups (García & Sharif, 2015; Hurd et al., 2014; Olshansky et al., 2012; Watts et al., 2013). Policies that limit the rights of marginalized groups have been found to undermine psychological well-being (Glasier et al., 2006; Hatzenbuehler, 2017). Minoritized students at PWIs, particularly those who are approaching college completion, may have experienced heightened distress regarding the potential of Trump’s proposed policies to negatively affect their future prospects and personal safety. Thus, it is unsurprising that participants in the current study, on average, reported elevated levels of distress associated with the Trump presidency.

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