Faculty Spotlight: Positive Psychology

Positive psychology has gained popularity over the years, shifting attention from studying what is negatively impacting individuals to understanding the positive aspects of well-being. Introduced in 1998 by Dr. Martin Seligman, positive psychology focuses on topics such as happiness, well-being, success, and optimal human functioning.1 This relatively new branch of psychology has expanded the scope of how we can use psychology to not only help those struggling with their mental health, but how we can use psychology to learn from those who are doing well. Often, we take this perspective with how to help undergraduate students, too. We worry about what’s not working, however, seeing what is working well for students is also informative.

Research with undergraduates has explored the concept of psychological grit within a positive psychology framework.2 Psychological grit refers to “passion and perseverance for long-term goals”, which has been associated with positive outcomes, such as graduating and academic performance.2 In one study, hope and psychological grit were found to be highly correlated.2 While this may not be surprising, it’s informative in exploring a positive aspect of mental health – if psychological grit and hope are positively correlated, how can we foster hope among undergraduate students to better their chance for positive outcomes?

Hope theory posits that hope is a goal-directed way of thinking.3 Taking a positive psychology approach, a brief single-session intervention with undergraduates sought to focus on promoting strengths using a hope intervention.3 The results are promising, as students showed increases in life purpose and vocational calling after the brief hope intervention.3

The positive psychology perspective provides us with a new way to foster psychological grit and hope among undergraduates. All students, even those doing well, may benefit from an increase in hope and while it is still vital to provide support for those who may be in more need than others, all students can benefit from an increase in hope – a predictor of overall well-being and life satisfaction.

1Donaldson, S. I., Dollwet, M., & Rao, M. A. (2015). Happiness, excellence, and optimal human functioning revisited: Examining the peer-reviewed literature linked to positive psychology. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(3), 185-195. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2014.943801

2Vela, J. C., Smith, W. D., Whittenberg, J. F., Guardiola, R., & Savage, M. (2018). Positive psychology factors as predictors of Latina/o college students’ psychological grit. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 46, 2-19. doi: 10.1002/jmcd.12089

3Feldman, D. B. & Dreher, D. E. (2012). Can hope be changed in 90 minutes? Testing the efficacy of a single-session goal-pursuit intervention for college students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13, 745-759. doi: 10.1007/s10902-011-9292-4

Faculty Spotlight: Social Media

Social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, are the norm for college students. In and out of the classroom, students are generally engaged in at least one, if not all, of these social media platforms. As use of social media increases, what are the consequences for students? How is social media impacting mental health among college students?

Fear of Missing Out (FoMO), is a phenomenon that has gained attention with the rise of social media. Defined as a “pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent, FoMO is characterized by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing”.1 Essentially, FoMO could explain why college students feel the need to be constantly engaged in social media. Research has indicated a relationship between academic motivations (intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, and a-motivation), social media engagement in the classroom, and FoMO.1 Students that were either extrinsically motivated (e.g. “I’m in college because I can get a higher paying job when I graduate”) or a-motivated (e.g., "I’m in college because I have to be”) had a positive relationship with FoMO, which in turn lead to more social media engagement.1 These findings could point to the use of social media as a means of distraction for students that are already struggling with finding intrinsic motivation (e.g., “I’m in college because I enjoy learning”) in the classroom.

While FoMO is a relatively new phenomenon being examined among college students, depression is not. However, with the addition of social media, depression among college students is being examined in novel ways. Looking specifically at Facebook envy (e.g., seeing others with or doing things you want but cannot have), researchers hypothesized that Facebook use would predict depression.2 Interestingly, Facebook use did not predict depression among college students, however, heavy Facebook use is associated with Facebook-related envy, which increased self-comparison to others.2

Overall, awareness of the consequences of social media on college students may be helpful in self-monitoring social media use. While the research on social media use doesn’t appear to swing one way or the other for it being harmful or not, it’s important to recognize that while technology advances, we are continuing to see and feel the consequences of social media inside and outside the classroom.

1Alt, D. (2015) College students’ academic motivation, media engagement and fear of missing out. Computers in Human Behavior, 49, 111-119. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.02.057
2Tandoc, E. C., Ferrucci, P. & Duffy, M. (2015). Facebook use, envy, and depression among college students: Is facebook depressing? Computers in Human Behavior, 43, 139-146. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.10.053


Faculty Spotlight: Stress

Stress in college is inevitable. Today, as undergraduate degrees become the norm, college students face a tremendous amount of pressure. Pressure to perform well academically, the increasing cost of undergraduate education, and developmentally still learning and growing – college students face a large amount of stress during a unique time in their lives. What are college students most concerned about? How are they coping and adapting to this stressful time?

In a survey on stress among over 300 undergraduate students, students rated academic performance, pressure to succeed, and post-graduate plans to be the most stressful and concerning.1 While these concerns were positively correlated with stress, they were also positively correlated with anxiety and depressive symptoms, highlighting the relationship between stress and mental health problems. Interestingly, students living off-campus scored the highest on stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms, followed by transfer students.1 This highlights the importance of campus connection for well-being.

Other research on undergraduates has focused on high and low stress tolerance, with high stress tolerance scores indicating that the student was able to better manage stress. One study found that feeling supported by family, friends, and professors was the single most significant protective factor for high stress tolerance.2 Risk factors for low stress tolerance, however, were external coping sources, such as cleaning, calling a friend or relative, shopping, social networking, and using substances when stressed.2

While all college students are susceptible to stress, knowing who is more vulnerable to stress, such as students living off-campus and transfer students, can be helpful in identifying who may need more resources. Similarly, providing constructive positive feedback to students may aid in increasing their feeling of support at SPU, reducing their risk of developing low stress tolerance. Overall, as college students navigate the stressful experience of college, we can be supportive by acknowledging the stressors in their lives and doing what we can to promote a positive and supportive environment.

1Beiter, R., Nash, R., McCrady, M., Rhoades, D., Linscomb, M., Clarahan, M., & Sammut, S. (2015). The prevalence and correlates of depression, anxiety, and stress in a sample of college students. Journal of Affective Disorders, 173, 90-96. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2014.10.054

2Bland, H. W., Melton, B. F., Welle, P., & Bigman, L. (2012). Stress tolerance: New challenges for millennial college students. College Student Journal, (2)46, 361-375.


Faculty Spotlight: Self-injury

Self-injury, also known as self-harm or non-suicidal self-injury, is deliberate self-inflicted harm to oneself. Behaviors that cause pain but are not done with the intention of ending life are considered self-injury. This includes cutting, burning, and biting – but can also include behaviors such as banging your head against a wall, hitting objects, or scratching. Often, self-injury is used as a way to cope with negative emotions.

Among college students, self-injury is common. One study, surveying over 14,000 college students, found that 15.3% had engaged in self-injury behaviors at least once in their lifetime, with higher rates among female students. 1 Among female students, the most common behavior was scratching and cutting, in easily covered areas such as the wrists, arms, thighs and stomach. This is compared to male students who reported punching objects with the intention of self-injury.1 Female students were more likely to disclose their self-injury behavior and to seek help compared to male students, raising concerns about the stereotyping of self-injury behaviors as a predominately female issue.1 While self-injury make look and manifest differently between the sexes, it is a problem across genders, races, ages, and ethnicities.

One way to help students is to be observant, such as noticing behaviors that may be indicative of self-injury includes obvious cuts, marks, and injuries on the hands and arms. Fostering self-compassion on campus and in the classroom may be another way to help students who may be struggling with self-injury. Recent research among self-injury college students has shown that there is a link between engaging in self-injury and low levels of self-compassion.2 Higher levels of self-compassion, the way in which we relate to ourselves internally, may reduce the amount of pain we are willing to tolerate – potentially reducing the frequency and duration of self-injury.2

Lastly, listening to students who may need help and providing them with resources (such as the Counseling Center), can be helpful.  For more information, check out NAMI’s site on self-harm.

1Whitlock, J., Muehlenkamp, J., Purington, A., Eckenrode, J., Barreira, P., Abrams, G. B., … Knox, K. (2011). Nonsuicidal self-injury in a college population: General trends and sex differences. Journal of American College Health, 59(8), 691-698.

2Gregory, W. E., Glazer, J. V., & Berenson, K. R. (2017). Self-compassion, self-injury, and pain. Cognitive Therapeutic Research, 41, 777-786. doi: 10.1007/s10608-017-9846-9

Faculty Spotlight: Eating Disorders

Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder, pose a risk to college students’ physical and mental health. Despite eating disorders being more common among females, eating disorder prevalence in college has risen among both male and female students.1 This increase may be due to a number of triggering events, such as the stress of moving away to college, changes in sleep and eating habits, academic and financial stress, and adjusting to new routines. Similarly, there are a number of biological, psychological, and social risk factors for eating disorders.

The popular perception of eating disorders is that individuals are motivated primarily by a desire to be thin. While this may be true, research indicates that the mechanisms by which disordered eating develops or occurs are more complicated. Low self-esteem, how an individual sees their own value, and depression, may all have an impact on disordered eating.2 However, research among a college student sample found low self-esteem and depression alone does not lead to abnormal eating behavior.2 Body dissatisfaction, a negative view of one’s own body, was found to be a mediator between self-esteem and depression, suggesting that body dissatisfaction, in combination with low self-esteem and depression, may have an important role in the development of abnormal eating behavior.2

What can we do with this information? Understanding and being aware of some of the underlying psychological factors of eating disorders and abnormal eating behavior can help us help students. Eating disorders in college are often untreated or undiagnosed as students will typically hide their behavior. Low self-esteem and signs of depression may be easier to notice in a classroom than abnormal eating behavior. Reaching out to students, fostering a body positive environment, and providing them with resources (such as the Counseling Center) are a great way to support students who may be struggling with low self-esteem, depression, body dissatisfaction, or abnormal eating behavior.

For more information about eating disorders and signs of abnormal eating behavior, visit the National Eating Disorders Association.

1National Eating Disorders Association (2013). Eating disorders on the college campus. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/sites/default/files/CollegeSurvey/CollegiateSurveyProject.pdf

2Lim, S. A., & You, S. (2017). Effects of self-esteem and depression on abnormal eating behavior among Korean female college students: Mediating role of body dissatisfaction. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26, 176-182. doi: 10.1007/s10826-016-0542-2

Faculty Spotlight: Marijuana Use

Marijuana use is a major concern on college campuses. With the legalization of recreational marijuana use, there are concerns that use will increase among students. Approximately one in five young adults report marijuana use1 and marijuana use among young adults has been associated with adverse consequences, such as academic impairment2, poorer health3, and risky behaviors such as driving a car while high.4

Seattle Pacific University is a unique environment for marijuana use. Being both a Christian university and a university located in a state that has legalized recreational marijuana (with the first sale of recreational marijuana happening in 2014), SPU offers an environment that both reduces and increases risk for marijuana use. Research has provided evidence that religiosity may reduce adolescent substance use.5 Perceived risk, measured as the perception of how using marijuana may harm the user, was higher among adolescents who reported high levels of religiosity. Adolescents with higher levels of religiosity, in turn, reported less marijuana use – suggesting religiosity may be a protective factor for marijuana use, due to the perceived risk of use.5

How can we use this information? Supporting students as they increase and explore their faith during their college experience may inadvertently affect their views and use of marijuana. While it’s important to specifically discuss marijuana use and provide awareness of the impact use may have on performance and the health of students, it’s also vital to provide a nurturing and communicative environment for students.  One of the major predictors of adolescent substance use is stress, so when college students feel supported they may not need to rely on substance use to cope with stress.

For more information marijuana use and college students, check out the National Institute of Health’s most recent research and our previous blog post on recognizing substance use among students.

1Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2015). Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 64. Retrieved from http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FRR1-2014/NSDUH-FRR1-2014.pdf
2Arria, A. M., Caldeira, K. M., Bugbee, B. A., Vincent, K. B., & O’Grady, K. E. (2015). The academic consequences of marijuana use during college. Psychology of Addictive Behavior, 29(3), 564–575. doi: 10.1037/adb0000108
3Arria, A. M., Caldeira, K. M., Bugbee, B. A., Vincent, K. B., & O’Grady, K. E. (2016). Marijuana use trajectories during college predict health outcomes nine years post-matriculation. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 14(1), 1–14. doi: 10.14574/ojrnhc.v14i1.276
4Pearson, M. R., Liese, B. S., & Dvorak, R. D. (2017). College student marijuana involvement: Perceptions, use, and consequences across 11 college campuses. Addictive Behaviors, 66, 83–89. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2016.10.019
5Varma, M., Moore, L. S., Cataldi, J. S., Estoup, A., & Stewart, D. G. (2017). Religosity and adolescent marijuana use. Mental, Health, Religion, and Culture, 20, 229-238. doi: 10.1080/13674676.2017.1334045

Faculty Spotlight: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Sometimes mistaken for the winter blues, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs during different times of the year, often associated with the changing of the seasons. Younger adults, specifically women, and individuals living farther from the equator are at a higher risk for developing SAD. Similar to depression, SAD shares many of the same symptoms, including sad or depressed mood, irritability, low energy, and feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt. However, SAD symptoms differ in that they include increased appetite, weight gain, and over-sleeping.1

Despite depression being more well-known, researchers have suggested SAD is more common among undergraduate populations.1 In one study, undergraduates with SAD scored high on cognitive failures (memory retrieval, perceptual discrimination, and attentional focus) similar to undergraduates with depression1, suggesting SAD can be as significant and debilitating as depression. It has been suggested that undergraduates may be experiencing higher rates of SAD during the winter months due to academic pressures of final exams and added stress from the holidays.2 However, research in an undergraduate population has shown that symptoms of SAD were highest and consistent through the months of December, January, and February, suggesting that SAD symptoms are not timed with exams and holidays.2

Common treatments for SAD include light therapy, medications, and therapy. Knowing the signs, symptoms, and being open to discussing of the impact seasonal affective disorder may have on undergraduates can serve to raise awareness and encourage students to reach out for additional support when needed.

1Sullivan, B. & Payne, T. W. (2007). Affective disorders and cognitive failures: A comparison of seasonal and nonseasonal depression. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164, 1663-1667.

2Rohan, S. T., & Sigmon, S. T. (2000). Seasonal mood patterns in a northeastern college sample. Journal of Affective Disorders, 59, 85-96.

Faculty Spotlight: Dating and Intimate Partner Violence

Dating violence, also known as intimate partner violence, includes controlling behavior, emotional and physical abuse, and aggressive behavior. Dating violence among college students is exceptionally high, ranging from 20-50%, and can happen to anyone regardless of age, sex, race, or background.1 College students are often entering and exiting relationships, sometimes for the first time, and healthy dating behavior may not even be known. Given the impact that dating violence may have on students, it is important that faculty and staff be aware of the warning signs dating violence, including excessive emails or texting, extreme jealousy, and false accusations.

Understanding students’ perceptions of domestic violence and dating violence may help faculty and staff increase awareness and support students. Research on beliefs around dating violence has indicated that college students often endorse the myth that women can find ways to get out of abusive relationships if they wanted.1 College student perceptions of women instigating fights leading to physical violence has also been endorsed.1 Unfortunately, this stigma around women not being able to help themselves, or perhaps instigating fights, can have negative consequence for women that do need help. The shame accompanied with the stigma may prevent or limit women from reaching out.

Men are also subject to stigma around dating violence. Media portrayals of men as aggressors may discount the fact that men are victims of dating violence. College students who reported beliefs of men being more dominant also indicated narrower views of dating violence.2 This could suggest that college students who have more education on dating violence may also have less stigmatized views of men as aggressors. The stigma around men as victims of dating violence is often accompanied with shame for men who experience dating violence from their partners.

What can you do for students who may be experiencing dating violence or intimate partner violence?

Lastly, just providing students with information around what dating violence is can be impactful – give them the chance to say something.

1Nabors, E. L., Dietz, T. L., & Jasinkski, J. L. (2006). Domestic violence beliefs and perceptions among college students. Violence and Victims, 21, 779-795.

2Jiao, Y., Sun, Y. I., Farmer, A. K., & Lin, K. (2016). College students’ definitions of intimate partner violence: A comparative study of three Chinese societies. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 31, 1208-1229. doi: 10.1177/0886260514564162

Faculty Spotlight: Mentorship

Adjusting to the college lifestyle, whether students are freshmen or seniors, can be complicated and at times, overwhelming. Mental health problems are commonly associated with chronic problems, such as depression, anxiety, and stress, but it’s also important to consider the mental well-being of all college students through this transition. Aside from a change in academic responsibilities, students are shifting away from parental role models. As students continue to form their adult identity in college, faculty and staff mentorship may be of increasing importance.

Mentorship ranges from informal mentoring, which occurs more naturally and organically, or formal mentoring, where the mentorship relationship is established with a clear and communicated goal.1 Regardless of how formal the relationship is, mentorship can provide students with emotional, instrumental, and learning benefits. One of the unique aspects to mentorship is that the relationship ideally strengthens overtime, increasing the longevity of the benefits for the student.1 Research has found decreases in unexcused absences and tardiness among undergraduates who received out-of-class mentoring and increases in academic performance.1 One of the most important aspects to faculty/staff-student mentorship is the opportunity for students to have an older role model to talk to about mental health issues as some students may avoid utilizing mental health services for fear of stigma.

On the flip-side, student mentorship of other students or community members has also shown an increase in mental health benefits. Researchers found that through participating in Campus Corps, a youth-to-youth mentoring program, college students experienced higher self-esteem, and had stronger interpersonal and problem-solving skills.2 The mentorship relationship may also provide students the opportunity to expand their world-view.2

Mentoring for and by undergraduates have several benefits for both performance and mental health. As faculty and staff, it may serve students well to facilitate mentoring opportunities to provide services to the community as a mentor. Seattle has a number of opportunities for students to become active in the community, such as SPU’s own Center for Career and Calling, the Boys and Girls Club and the Empowering Mentor Program. Finally, as faculty and staff, it’s important to recognize the intrinsic value and benefit to mentoring undergraduates – a positive relationship with one adult role model can go a long way!

1The role of mentoring and college access and success (2011). Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP).
2 Weiler, L., Haddock, S., Zimmerman, T. S., Krafchick, J., Henry, K., & Rudisill, S. (2013). Benefits derived by college students from mentoring at-risk youth in service learning. American Journal of Community Psychology, 52, 236-248. doi: 10.1007/s10464-013-9589-z

Faculty Spotlight: Perfectionism

As students begin the new school year, it is important to foster positive approaches to academics and the demands of college. Perfectionism, the tendency to set and hold unrealistically high expectations, is a prevalent phenomenon.1,2 Undergraduate students may be especially susceptible to perfectionism due to an increase in responsibilities and demands of college, such as new social, academic and financial stressors.2 These new responsibilities may contribute to the onset of distress in students, such as symptoms of anxiety or depression.2 Students may attempt to alleviate the distress of these new responsibilities through increasing their control of the demands placed on them. One way to assert control over various domains and responsibilities is through perfectionism.

While there are benefits to perfectionism, such as a high level of performance and an increased attention to detail, maladaptive perfectionism can result in excessive self-criticism and a general sense of inadequacy.1 Distressed college students may place too much emphasis on earning straight A’s or may spend too much time worrying about small details. This may increase their distress and the amount of time they are spending on assignments, thus creating a cycle of stress leading to symptoms of anxiety and depression.

How can we combat perfectionism, while still helping students to be successful?  Self-compassion, defined as the awareness that disappointments and flaws are an inevitable part of the human experience and everyone deserves kindness, even the self, may provide a new perspective for students struggling to meet their own high demands.1 Self-compassion has specifically been identified as a possible mediator between maladaptive perfectionism and symptoms of depression in undergraduates.1 As a mediator, self-compassion may be able to help explain the relationship between perfectionism and depressive symptoms, suggesting that among perfectionistic students, as self-compassion scores are higher, depressive symptoms are lower. Similarly, increased resiliency-related behaviors, such as seeking social support when needed, has been linked to decreased distress among college students who exhibit maladaptive perfectionistic cognitions and behaviors.2 Social pressures related to perfectionism had the strongest relations between low levels of resiliency and high levels of symptoms of depression and anxiety.2

Among undergraduates, especially those considering graduate or professional school, academic performance is a constant concern. As we know perfectionism can have negative consequences on the wellness of students, it is important that faculty and staff try to promote an environment where academic success is supported, but constructs, such as self-compassion, are also facilitated. Modeling and discussing self-care with students, such as reminding students to reach out when feeling distressed, may aid in a more balanced approach to the demands of academics, preventing maladaptive perfectionistic consequences (symptoms of depression and anxiety). Lastly, recognizing that all students begin the college experience with varying expectations and emotional health can be beneficial in faculty and staff expectations of students.

1Mehr, K. E., & Adams, A. C. (2016). Self-compassion as a mediator of maladaptive perfectionism and depressive symptoms in college students. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 30(2), 132-145. doi: 1.1080/87.568225.2016.1140991

2 Kilbert, J., Lamis, D. A., Collins, W., Smalley, K. B., Warren, J. C., Yancy, C. T., & Winterowd, C. (2014). Resilience mediates the relations between perfectionism and college student distress. Journal of Counseling & Development, 92, 75-92. doi: 10.1002/j.556-6676.2014.00132.x