Study Highlights Racism, Sexual Assault as Contributors to College Mental Health Challenges

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A text mining analysis of academic and news articles related to mental health issues in higher education finds that racism, violence and sexual assault are key contributors to mental health challenges for students. The research also highlights the need for mental health services, and outlines some ways that mobile technologies may be able to help address these needs.

“We had found in our previous work that students are concerned about mental health issues, and we wanted to better define the scope of mental health challenges for students and what factors contribute to those challenges,” says Fay Cobb Payton, corresponding author of a paper on the work and a professor of information systems/technology and University Faculty Scholar at North Carolina State University.

To address these questions, the researchers used text mining techniques to analyze 165 articles published between 2010 and 2015. The researchers drew on both peer-reviewed research literature and articles published in higher-education news outlets.

“We included news outlets because that allowed us to capture timely information that reflected conditions across campuses nationally,” Payton says.

The most common theme that cropped up in the articles was an increased need for student mental health services, an idea that appeared in 68 percent of the analyzed material. Among factors that contribute to mental health concerns, the most common was racism and bias against ethnic groups, found in 18 percent of the articles. The researchers also pointed to violence and sexual assault – mentioned in 5 percent of the articles – as a significant contributing factor.

The researchers note that colleges and universities are taking steps to both provide mental health services and offer targeted outreach to students of color. But, the researchers say, many students are simply not taking advantage of the services that are available.

“More needs to be done to address the stigma associated with seeking help in the aftermath of violence or sexual assault, and more needs to be done to address the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health challenges,” says Lynette Kvasny Yarger, co-author of the paper and an associate professor of information sciences and technology at Pennsylvania State University.

“Students who are facing the trauma of sexual assault are dealing with the dual stigma of seeking help for both the assault and the ensuing mental health challenges,” Payton says.

The researchers also note that mobile technologies may help to meet some of these mental health needs.

“Mobile apps may be valuable for sharing information and resources with students, as well as providing students with improved access to treatment or to connect with communities that could offer peer support,” Payton says. “Apps could also be used to create opportunities for peer training or for storytelling that could address issues related to stigma.”

However, the researchers note, such mobile app interventions should be driven by evidence-based approaches – and the field of mobile interventions is still in its relatively early stages.

“Our study highlights salient mental health issues for researchers seeking to develop impactful mobile interventions,” Payton says. “Additional evidence-based research is needed in this domain.”

The paper, “Text Mining Mental Health Reports for Issues Impacting Today’s College Students: Qualitative Study,” is published in the journal JMIR Mental Health. The paper was co-authored by Anthony Pinter of the University of Colorado Boulder.

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Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Text Mining Mental Health Reports for Issues Impacting Today’s College Students: Qualitative Study”

Authors: Fay Cobb Payton, North Carolina State University; Lynette Kvasny Yarger, Pennsylvania State University; Anthony Pinter, University of Colorado Boulder

Published: Oct. 23, JMIR Mental Health

DOI: 10.2196/10032

Abstract:
Background: A growing number of college students are experiencing personal circumstances or encountering situations that feel overwhelming and negatively affect their academic studies and other aspects of life on campus. To meet this growing demand for counseling services, US colleges and universities are offering a growing variety of mental health services that provide support and services to students in distress.

Objective: In this study, we explore mental health issues impacting college students using a corpus of news articles, foundation reports, and media stories. Mental health concerns within this population have been on the rise. Uncovering the most salient themes articulated in current news and literature reports can better enable higher education institutions to provide health services to its students.

Methods: We used SAS Text Miner to analyze 165 references that were published from 2010 to 2015 and focused on mental health among college students. Key clusters were identified to reveal the themes that were most significant to the topic.

Results: The final cluster analysis yielded six themes in students’ mental health experiences in higher education (ie, age, race, crime, student services, aftermath, victim). Two themes, increasing demand for student services provided by campus counseling centers (113/165, 68.5%) and the increased mental health risks faced by racial and ethnic minorities (30/165, 18.2%), dominated the discourse.

Conclusions: Higher education institutions are actively engaged in extending mental health services and offering targeted outreach to students of color. Cluster analysis identified that institutions are devoting more and innovative resources in response to the growing number students who experience mental health concerns. However, there is a need to focus on proactive approaches to mitigate the causes of mental health and the aftermath of a negative experience, particularly violence and sexual assault. Such strategies can potentially influence how students navigate their health information seeking and how information and communication technologies, including mobile apps, can partially address the needs of college students.