University student mental health: a culturally mediated effect?

Year: 2018

Author: Boon, Helen, Kimhi, Shaul, An, Soontae

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The mental health of young people aged 16-24 years is a growing concern in Australia, comprising one of Australia’s nine National Health Priority Areas, not least because most mental illnesses also emerge around late adolescence and the early twenties. The same age group also concentrates in higher education institutions and as such is compounded by additional stresses and study demands, documented in multiple reports demonstrating an alarming prevalence of higher education students in distress (e.g., Stallman 2010). The risks of mental health factors can also lead to suicide, a public health concern worldwide (WHO, 2014).  It is therefore the province of tertiary institutions to help ensure that there are support systems available for the successful experience of students during their study, which can also function to increase retention rates.
This study explored mental health in higher education students and examined whether resilience was a protective factor because resilience is an attribute that can be fostered. The study’s conceptual framework was Bronfenbrenner’s biological systems theory which links cultural and environmental factors to psychological and health attributes (Bronfenbrenner, & Morris, 1998). To incorporate cultural factors a sample of over 1000 tertiary students from diverse countries was employed; the sample included tertiary students from Australia, Germany, Korea, Israel, Greece and the UK.  Participants were surveyed to examine their resilience, distress and sense of coherence using the Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI), the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale and the Sense of coherence (SOC) scale, part of Antonovsky’s (1993) salutogenic theory, which functions as a psychological stress-resistance resource.    
Analyses revealed significant differences in distress levels by discipline of study, gender and country of origin. However, regression analyses of the three factors and a range of demographics resulted in evidence that cultural factors are important for providing social mores and support which may be a significant protective factor against distress symptoms affecting mental health, especially among men. The most significant protective factors against a distress symptomatology were resilience, a sense of coherence, cultural context and age. For males the model predicted 34% of the variance in distress symptoms across all countries, while for females the model predicted 26% of the variance in distress symptoms. These results are important for our understanding of how culture likely influences the expression and perception of distress and, in the case of Australia, a multicultural country, for the construction of appropriate interventions to support the mental health of diverse tertiary students.