Effects of childhood adversity linger during college years

Multiple difficult childhood experiences can lead to depression and anxiety during college, research has found. Lack of support often makes things worse.

By Toni Watt Published on Jul 21, 2021.
A study found that 22.8% of college students had experienced at least four adverse childhood experiences. Carol Yepes/Getty Images

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

College students who experienced a high level of adversity in childhood have lower levels of social support, such as having someone to confide in, ask for advice or go to for emotional support. When students lack these supportive relationships, they are at an increased risk of experiencing depression and anxiety. These are a few of the findings from our peer-reviewed study published in 2020 in the Journal of American College Health.

A substantial body of research reveals that adverse childhood experiences can have lifelong consequences. When children suffer from abuse or neglect, witness domestic violence, or experience parental substance abuse, mental illness or incarceration, they are at increased risk for physical and mental health problems and poor educational outcomes. Our study delves into how childhood adversity relates to specific aspects of the social and psychological well-being of college students.

Our interdisciplinary research team conducted a survey of over 400 students at Texas State University. We found that a little more than one out of every five students – specifically, 22.8% – reported experiencing four or more adverse childhood experiences, an amount of adversity associated with a considerable increase in the risk of poor outcomes.

Consistent with other research, we found that these students had higher rates of depression and anxiety than students with fewer adverse childhood experiences.

Why it matters

Mental health disorders among college students have risen significantly in the past 10 years both in terms of incidence and severity.

Disorders such as depression and anxiety contribute to poor academic performance and an increased risk of dropping out of college. The average ratio of students to campus mental health counselors is 1,600 to 1. The gap between the need for mental health services and available resources has produced what Lauren Lumpkin, of The Washington Post, referred to as a “mental health crisis” on college campuses.

When students head back to college in the fall, our research suggests, colleges can help students stay in school if they better understand what students have been through and what they need to succeed. Many of these students were already struggling before the pandemic, and the pandemic has only produced more fear, loss and social isolation.

What still isn’t known

Although we found that students who have suffered considerable adversity in childhood lack social support, we still don’t know what types of support they need or want the most. For example, would students participate in a mentoring program, and if so, would they prefer a faculty and staff or a peer support program? Would group counseling sessions be utilized, or would health-promoting group activities, such as nature walks or yoga classes, be more effective at helping students improve their mental health and connect with others on campus?

What’s next

Our research team will be working to better understand the needs of students with a history of complex trauma, identify their unique strengths and evaluate how to best help them succeed. We are also examining the potential for post-traumatic growth among these students. Post-traumatic growth is the process through which adversity contributes to the development of positive personal qualities such as empathy, altruism and openness.

[Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter.]

Toni Watt does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Read These Next

Recommended for You