Helping Students Cope With Sociopolitical Stress

It's affecting them unequally, and here's what colleges can do, write Parissa J. Ballard, Mariah Kornbluh, Alison K. Cohen, Lindsay Till Hoyt, Melissa J. Hagan and Amanda L. Davis.

October 29, 2020
(smartboy10/digitalvision vectors via Getty Images)

Being a college student in 2020 is exceptionally stressful. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life globally, mental health challenges were rising among college students in the United States. Additional stressors have accumulated in the months since: spring brought the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in this country, the implementation of shelter-in-place orders, a switch to remote learning and an economic recession; summer brought heightened attention to violence against Black men and women and a resurgence of the Movement for Black Lives and protests throughout the country; and fall has featured a divisive national election. No wonder then, that college students have reported high levels of stress over the course of 2020.

Against this backdrop of a stressful time, during which deeply entrenched health and economic disparities have become even more exacerbated, how are college students perceiving, participating in and responding to a national election that is being characterized as the most consequential political event in recent history? New studies are exploring these questions and trying to understand the effects of sociopolitical stress on college students.

Sociopolitical stress refers to the intense feelings and experiences people have that stem from awareness of, exposure to and/or involvement in political events and phenomena like elections and social movements. This form of stress is distinct from personal, interpersonal and collective stress, but it certainly intersects with these forms of stress to impact college students.

Sociopolitical stress can function in both negative and positive ways. For example, it can compound with other life stressors to affect students’ daily functioning and contribute to a sense of anxiety or burnout. It can also motivate constructive action and inspire people to connect with others who share similar beliefs and values.

Building on the precedent for studying the impact of macro-level political events like the 2016 election on young people, and general public agreement that elections and other political events can be highly stressful, we set out to understand sociopolitical stress among college students this fall. Our study of election-related stress and civic participation includes more than 700 students from 10 universities across the country. In data collected this month, we found that the majority (75 percent) of college students indicated that they were “stressed out” by the current election. Students reported higher levels of sociopolitical stress compared to general psychological stress (based on responses to a widely used measure of perceived stress).

But reports of sociopolitical stress were unequal across students. College students from historically marginalized groups with regard to race, gender and sexual orientation reported higher levels of sociopolitical stress. Students who identified as white, cisgender male and heterosexual reported low levels of sociopolitical stress compared to students who identified with other racial, gender and sexual orientations. Sociopolitical events may exacerbate existing stressors known to disproportionately affect college students from historically marginalized groups, or they may present yet another layer of disparities for college students.

We also found that students who planned to vote reported higher sociopolitical stress compared to those who did not plan to vote. This may mean that students who are highly invested in the election experience more distress -- and that voting provides a way to channel stress into constructive action. Our study will follow this set of college students over time to better understand how experiences of sociopolitical stress leading up to the 2020 election manifest in terms of mental health and health behaviors.

Acknowledging Stressors

Although individual and interpersonal stressors are widely recognized in institutions of higher education, sociopolitical stress may fly under the radar of faculty, staff and leadership. By recognizing that macro-level forces like elections also affect individual students’ well-being, higher education institutions can help support students by providing them with information and resources, ensuring awareness of and access to counseling services, and implementing policies that promote a positive campus climate.

Faculty members have a number of opportunities to provide information and resources to students via the classroom. For example, they can scaffold informed conversations, whether synchronous or asynchronous, about sociopolitical events. Although these conversations can be potentially difficult for students and faculty alike, they may offer students a distinct and supportive outlet for processing sociopolitical stress. When facilitated appropriately in a way that is inclusive rather than alienating, such conversations can help ensure that students feel seen and that their experiences are acknowledged. For students who are having severe difficulty, faculty members should be prepared to make referrals to counseling or wellness centers.

Innovative mental health services employing telehealth care and social media that have arisen in the recent pandemic are promising vehicles for expanding services and disseminating information about sociopolitical stress. This is likely to be especially important for college students from historically marginalized groups, who may be experiencing the highest levels of sociopolitical stress and whose sociopolitical action can have varied implications for their mental health and well-being.

Outside the classroom, colleges and universities might consider facilitating workshops on effective communication and de-escalation techniques for difficult conversations about divisive issues. At times when sociopolitical events are especially salient -- for example, this week before a national election -- faculty and administrators might work together with clinical staff and counselors to provide programs, dialogues and spaces for students to meet with counselors. Although many counseling centers are already strained, it would serve campus communities well to plan adequate staffing around major events and to further ensure counselors come from a range of backgrounds and experiences, which can be critical to support health and wellness among students from historically marginalized groups.

Finally, faculty and administrators attuned to sociopolitical stress can be strategic in course planning and setting sensitive course and institution policy. For example, faculty might avoid having an exam or major assignment due the week of a national election or cancel classes on Election Day to reduce potentially stressful competing demands of civic and college participation.

Acknowledging stressors surrounding the 2020 national election -- and taking concrete actions to support students experiencing sociopolitical stress -- could go a long way to promote students’ mental health and academic success this fall.

Share Article

Parissa J. Ballard is an assistant professor of family and community medicine at the Wake Forest School of Medicine. Mariah Kornbluh is an assistant professor of community psychology at the University of South Carolina. Alison K. Cohen is an instructor of epidemiology and population health at Stanford University. Lindsay Till Hoyt is an assistant professor of applied developmental psychology at Fordham University. Melissa J. Hagan is an assistant professor of clinical psychology at San Francisco State University and an adjunct assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. Amanda L. Davis is a second-year doctoral student in school psychology at the University of South Carolina.

Back to Top