How Colleges and Universities Can Support Student Parents’ Mental Health

June 12, 2023

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Title: Improving Mental Health of Student Parents: A Framework for Higher Education

Source: Ascend at The Aspen Institute and The Jed Foundation

Student parents comprise over 20 percent of today’s college-going population; however, they face substantial barriers to their persistence and degree completion, including mental health challenges.

In their new publication, Ascend at The Aspen Institute and The Jed Foundation (JED) present the culmination of their three-year partnership focused on improving higher education’s understanding and support of student parents’ mental health and emotional well-being.

Drawing from five national data sources on both parenting and nonparenting undergraduate students, Ascend and JED found student parents are “at greater risk for mental health issues than nonparenting students” due to stressors in their pursuit of higher education. Prevalent stressors include financial barriers or basic needs insecurity, lack of belonging or feeling isolated on campus, and role conflict or conflicts between their parenting and student responsibilities. Younger student parents (ages 18-24) particularly struggle with “poor mental health, substance use, and feelings of low self-esteem and isolation.”

Despite their increased risk and likelihood of facing mental health concerns, student parents are less likely to receive help on campus; for example, student parents are less likely to be aware of campus mental health and wellness services than more traditional or nonparenting students. Those student parents who are able to access campus mental health services may be poorly supported by staff who are often unaware or ill-equipped to address the unique needs of student parents.

In response to these and other barriers to student parents’ mental health, Ascend and JED provide the following recommendations for faculty, staff, and administrators:

Improve understanding and consideration of student parents across campus: This includes taking into account the unique needs, stressors, and circumstances of student parents when developing and implementing campus policies and procedures. Focus on improving the training of campus mental health counselors, specifically to increase their knowledge of student parents’ and other nontraditional students’ needs, trauma-informed practices, and available resources such as emergency assistance funds and food pantries. Faculty members are encouraged to gain a better understanding of student parents and to provide flexibility and accommodations whenever possible. Institutions also should commit to improving institutional data on student parents.

Enhance student parents’ sense of belonging and visibility on campus: Create family-friendly spaces that accommodate both their student and parental responsibilities, such as lactation or nursing rooms, family study areas, dining areas equipped with highchairs and children’s utensils, and dedicated student parent lounges. Design family-friendly activities and improve childcare access to allow student parents to participate in campus events. Tailor specific programming to student parents, such as orientation sessions, affinity groups, and mentoring programs.

Address student parents’ basic needs: Develop institutional strategies to help meet students’ basic needs, namely housing, food, and childcare. Suggested strategies include building an informational hub for students to easily access support services, offering student parents guidance or support in applying for social services, and developing a referral system for faculty and staff to more easily connect students with campus and community resources.

To read the full framework, click here.

—Alyssa Stefanese Yates

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