Stacie Thursby, Student Research Assistant currently studying MSc Health Psychology at Teesside University
The transition to University and student life can be an exciting experience, however, it also brings with it its own set of unique challenges. For instance, moving away from home for the first time can be daunting, and those returning to education in later life can feel pressure due to changes in status and lifestyle. Whilst, for most, the stress of these challenges has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the pandemic, it is not unusual for students to start their academic journey with a history of exposure to traumatic events (Frazier et al., 2014).
A traumatic event is experienced when an individual, or someone close to them is faced with a deeply upsetting or threatening situation that puts them at risk of serious harm or death (Muldoon et al., 2020). Student reports of traumatic experiences include car accidents, physical violence, sexual abuse, natural disasters, or ongoing adversity such as poverty, discrimination, and life-threatening illnesses (Frazier et al., 2009). Students are also at increased risk of sexual and community violence (Galatzer-Levy et al., 2012). Whilst the mental, physical, social, and emotional impacts of trauma are recovered from within weeks or months, flashbacks and memories can be triggered years after the event has taken place. Associated reoccurring emotions including sadness, anger, and guilt often remain for much longer. In cases where these feelings continue, mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression can manifest. Exposure to repeated traumatic events or prolonged adversity, can therefore, be detrimental to long-term mental health, and is particularly common in those from underrepresented groups (Olaniyan, 2021).
In 2015, the UK government set up an agenda to widen participation in higher education, encouraging individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds including lower-income households, care-leavers, mature students, disabled students, and those from BAME groups to attend university (Connell-Smith & Hubble, 2018; Office for Students, 2021). Whilst this initiative has been welcomed by the public and the education sector, trauma-related mental health concerns have not been accounted for and have been widely associated with reduced academic success e.g., lower average grades, missed deadlines (Pereira et al., 2018). As access to NHS mental health services are becoming increasingly restricted due to public spending cuts, it is likely that the only support students will receive for mild to moderate mental health problems is through student services (Pereira et al., 2020). These services are in high demand, have long waiting lists, and often have a “one size fits all” approach which is neither trauma informed, nor does it address individual student needs.
There is growing evidence of links between the experience of traumatic events and numerous psychological and social factors. For example, traumatic experiences may lead individuals to isolate themselves and avoid interaction with others. Through being away from home and facing new social and learning environments these factors can prevail among students, leading to reports of heightened feelings of loneliness – feelings further exacerbated throughout the pandemic. Unhealthy coping strategies in response to traumatic events are not uncommon in students, including drinking alcohol, drug use, or binge eating (Sommer et al., 2020), which can have adverse effects on health and well-being. These behaviours may also make any mental health issues such as depression and anxiety worse, negatively impacting student’s academic success. As we approach the summer of 2021, we are emerging from the third UK lockdown. It is hoped that a return to campus in the new academic year can create a sense of structure and consistency. Prolonged traumatic events such as COVID-19 can affect student mental health, subsequently affecting engagement and academic success.
Trauma-informed teaching is emerging as a technique for addressing such issues, though not yet widely adopted. This approach involves education providers recognising students’ traumatic experiences and the effects of such experiences on student well-being and learning (Carello & Butler, 2014). Additionally, the need to facilitate student feelings of safety, empowerment, and connection is acknowledged. Psychological resilience can help foster post-traumatic growth however the question remains – how, why, and when does resilience occur? And how can we go about facilitating students to become resilient and succeed academically? First, it is necessary to understand more about the complex pathways underpinning the experience of traumatic events and how they can influence academic success in students. If we can understand more about how certain factors can help promote resilience, we can use that knowledge to develop trauma-informed interventions for students to improve their well-being and help them succeed in their studies.
We are currently conducting a survey to explore what traumatic events, if any, students have experienced and what factors are involved in building resilience and academic success. If you would like to contribute and take part in this important research study, please follow the link below:
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this research, please see the organisations below for more support:
Carello, J., & Butler, L. D. (2014). Potentially perilous pedagogies: Teaching trauma is not the same as trauma-informed teaching. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 15(2), 153-168. doi: 10.1080/15299732.2014.867571
Connell-Smith, A., & Hubble, S. (2018). Widening participation strategy in higher education in England. House of Commons Library. Accessed: Widening participation strategy in higher education in England (ioe.ac.uk)
Frazier, P., Anders, S., Perera, S., Tomich, P., Tennen, H., Park, C., & Tashiro, T. (2009). Traumatic events among undergraduate students: Prevalence and associated symptoms. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 56(3), 450-460. doi: 10.1037/a0016412
Galatzer-Levy, I. R., Burton, C. L., & Bonanno, G. A. (2012). Coping flexibility, potentially traumatic life events, and resilience: A prospective study of college student adjustment. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31(6), 542-567. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2012.31.6.542
Muldoon, O. T., Haslam, S. A., Haslam, C., Cruwys, T., Kearns, M., & Jetten, J. (2019). The social psychology of responses to trauma: Social identity pathways associated with divergent traumatic responses. European Review of Social Psychology, 30(1), 311-348. https://doi.org/10.1080/10463283.2020.1711628
Office for Students. (2021). Our approach to access and participation. Accessed: The challenge – Office for Students
Olaniyan, F. V. (2021). Paying the widening participation penalty: Racial and ethnic minority students and mental health in British universities. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 1, 1-23. doi: 10.1111/asap.12242
Pereira, J. L., Guedes-Carneiro, G. M., Netto, L. R., Cavalcanti-Ribeiro, P., Lira, S., Nogueira, J. F., Teles, C. A., Koenen, K. C., Sampaio, A. S., & Quarantini, L. C. (2018). Types of trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder, and academic performance in a population of university students. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 206(7), 507-512.
Pereira, S., Early, N., Outer, L., Dimitrova, M., Walker., & Dzikiti, C. (2020). University Student Mental Health Survey 2020. The Insight Network. 60305923a557c3641f1a7808_Mental Health Report 2019 (2020).pdf (website-files.com)
Sommer, J. L., El-Gabalawy, R., Contractor, A. A., Weiss, N. H., & Mota, N. (2020). PTSD’s risky behavior criterion: Associated risky and unhealthy behaviors and psychiatric correlates in a nationally representative sample. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 73, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2020.102247