Do Sources of Stress Moderate the Association between Coping and Psychopathology Among College Students?
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College is an especially stressful time for young adults (Hurst et al, 2012), with academic, financial, and interpersonal stressors as being particularly prevalent among college students (American College Health Association, 2015). These stressors are associated with a range of mental health disorders and health-risk behaviors (MacGeorge, Samter, & Gillihan, 2005; Misra & McKean, 2000), although using adaptive coping strategies may reduce these associations (Coiro, Bettis & Compas, 2017). The current study aimed to understand whether the specific source of stress moderates the association between coping and mental health-related outcomes among a sample of college students. Based on prior literature it was hypothesized that students would report academics as their greatest sources of stress; that interpersonal stress would be more strongly associated with depression and anxiety symptoms (measured via the Patient Health Questionnaire; Spitzer, Kroenke, & Williams, 1999) than other forms of stress; and that source of stress would moderate the association between coping (measured via the Responses to Stress Questionnaire; Connor-Smith et al., 2000) and mental health symptoms.
Participants included 301 undergraduate students from two mid-sized comprehensive universities. Responses to an open-ended self-report question regarding the greatest source of stress were coded by two raters who achieved inter-rater agreement of 94%. Academic stress was reported as the greatest source of stress by 53% of students, followed by interpersonal (15%), and financial (7%) stress. Twenty-one percent of students reported a primary stressor that did not fit into these three predetermined categories (e.g. body image, homesickness, stress related to the future). Additional analyses found that use of adaptive coping strategies was associated with lower depression and anxiety, while use of maladaptive coping was associated with greater depression and anxiety. However, major source of stress did not moderate the association between coping and mental health symptoms (measured via the Responses to Stress Questionnaire; Connor-Smith et al., 2000); and symptoms of depression and anxiety, suggesting that coping is associated with poorer mental health regardless of source of stress.These findings have the potential to inform interventions for college students experiencing high levels of stress, depression and anxiety.