Lesley Del Rio wasn’t sure she would complete her studies this year and get her associate's degree in business administration. She and her 10-year-old son were cramped together in their small Denver apartment during the pandemic, and the normal boundaries between her roles as a single mother, college student and working adult came “crashing down.”
“For a little bit there, I felt like there was no escape,” she said. “And I still have to turn around and make things happy and comfortable and make sure that I wasn’t oozing fear onto my kiddo so he could feel safe and so he could feel like there was a sense of fun and normalcy in his life still.”
Appointments with her mental health therapist started to feel like a chore, just another thing on her to-do list as a working mother in college. Mental health care can feel like “an unobtainable luxury” for parents like herself, she said.
Many students parents who need such help struggle to get it, according to a new study on their mental health outcomes.
The report was released Wednesday by the JED Foundation, a nonprofit that conducts research on the mental health of young adults, and Ascend, a policy advocacy program at the Aspen Institute focused on social mobility of families. Del Rio is a parent adviser for the program.
The report, which is based on an analysis of existing data and a survey of 436 nonparenting students and 586 parenting students earlier this year, found that 43 percent of student parents felt stressed all or most of the time. About 40 percent of student parents reported feeling overwhelmed, and 28 percent struggled with depression. More than half of student parents said they didn’t feel welcome on their campuses. More than a third reported that they considered stopping out of school in the last month, compared to a quarter of nonparents. The report also points out that parenting students lack basic needs at much higher rates than nonparenting students and that this takes a toll on mental health.
David Croom, assistant director of postsecondary achievement and innovation at Ascend and co-author of the study, said the findings should serve as guide for college administrators seeking ways to keep these students enrolled. He noted that student parents or caregivers stopped out at much higher rates than noncaregivers last fall.
“Dealing with the mental health of student parents, providing additional resources, providing family-friendly spaces, could be helpful toward bringing this population back to your campuses … so they feel supported and are able to succeed in these settings,” he said.
Many parents don’t know about campus mental health resources or don’t think they can afford them, according to the report. About 15.5 percent of parenting students reported that it was at least somewhat difficult to pay for mental health care, relative to about 10.3 percent of nonparents. While parents were more likely to use campus academic support services than their nonparent peers, less than half of student parents knew about mental health outreach initiatives on their campuses, compared to about 60 percent of nonparents.
“Parenting students often spend less time on campus than their nonparenting peers,” said Carrie Welton, a former student parent and the director of policy and advocacy at Temple University's Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, which researches food and housing insecurity among college students. “It’s much more likely that they’re going to be a parking-lot-to-class-to-parking-lot student than they are going to be looking for resources on campus.”
Student parents also assume campus mental health services aren’t designed for them and counselors can’t address their particular stressors, said Larissa M. Mercado-López, a professor of women’s studies at California State University, Fresno. Mercado-López became a student parent herself at age 21 and then had two children in graduate school. She surveyed student parents about their campus experiences at Fresno State to help the institution better assess students' needs.
She said she would have sought out therapy on campus when she was a student if she had known mental health counselors were trained to work with students like herself.
“Student parents are not going to assume that those services are for them,” she said.
The JED Foundation and Ascend study found notable disparities in mental health outcomes for younger parents and parents above the age of 25. Younger parents were five times as likely to report feeling worthless, twice as likely to report feeling left out or isolated, and twice as likely to have considered suicide often in the past year. While older parents described rarely drinking more than one or two alcoholic beverages, almost 15 percent of younger parenting students described having six to 10 drinks the last time they drank. Older parents, meanwhile, were more likely to express positivity about how they felt about their lives and futures compared to nonparents in their age bracket. Younger students in general had less sunny outlooks.
These results were no surprise to Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder and CEO of Generation Hope, a nonprofit organization that offers supports to teen parents. The Generation Hope Scholar Program provides mentoring, tuition assistance, academic support and a peer community to an annual cohort of teen college students with children age 6 and below in the Washington, D.C., metro area.
She said older parents have work experience to bolster their confidence and tend to have more support at home. Younger parents encounter “incredible shame and stigma,” they face pressures to put college on hold, and sometimes their pregnancies disrupt their support systems.
Generation Hope has a mental health counselor on staff, and the number of appointments requested by students jumped by 30 percent during the past year.
Lewis said the pandemic only exacerbated the stressors young parents face, she said.
“It’s still a very stigmatized population,” she said. “It’s a population that people are often very negative about and want to withhold resources from. What I really hope people see is that younger student parents, if they don’t get the support that they need to go to college, they become older student parents. That is the reality. By calling out the needs that are unique to younger students, we can help to get parenting students through college and to the finish line more quickly so they can get to family-sustaining wages.”
The report offers numerous recommendations for colleges and universities to better support student parents based on the study’s findings. For example, the authors suggest training not only counselors but faculty and staff on student parents’ mental health needs, because parents interact more with their professors and academic counselors than do their peers. The authors also recommend creating places on campus where children are explicitly welcome, such as designated family rooms in campus libraries, and advertising affinity groups for parents. The authors encourage universities to represent student parents in university promotional materials and make class schedules more flexible for students balancing family responsibilities by offering asynchronous learning options, giving student parents priority for course registration and establishing more forgiving policies for taking absences or answering family-related phone calls in class.
Welton, of the Hope Center, said parents constantly receive the message that higher education isn’t for them based on how courses and supports are structured, which increases their feelings of isolation.
“When I was a young parenting student, I often had to adhere to my work schedule and then figure out what college classes I could pair with that that didn’t interrupt my ability to work,” she said.
She noted that most programs operate on the assumption that students can attend classes at any time of day.
“That first sends a signal that parenting students are not the demographic that higher education institutions are targeting for postsecondary degrees,” she said.
The study also concludes that universities need to regularly collect data on student parents.
Research on student parents is still relatively new, and much of it focuses on basic needs insecurity rather than mental health, said co-author Sara Gorman, director of research and knowledge dissemination at the JED Foundation. The new study explores and explains how the two issues are intertwined.
“I think in the college mental health world, there seems to be a lack of understanding about both the size of this population and the mental health challenges they face,” she said. “Within talking about basic needs insecurity, or even things like lack of sleep or lack of time, you find that many of them are actually having symptoms of mental health issues … When you’re lacking some of those basic needs, it’s harder to think about how am I doing emotionally.”