The importance of parents when starting college during a pandemic

Study shows strong parent-child relationships buffer against mental health problems

March 11, 2022

A new study has shown that parent-child relationships protected students who started college in the midst of the pandemic from alcohol misuse and mental health problems.  

The study followed 425 first-year students who started college in the fall 2020 semester, a time when many classes were still offered remotely and social distancing impacted extracurricular activities. Nearly half of the participants reported mental health struggles, alcohol use or a combination of both. The work was published online March 3 in Child Psychiatry and Human Development. ASU Assistant Professor of Psychology Jinni Su Jinni Su, ASU assistant professor of psychology. Download Full Image

“This study shows that parents are an important source of support to college students and that they continue to play an important role in their child’s life,” said Jinni Su, assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University. “A strong relationship between students and parents is protective and goes a long way towards shielding them from mental health and alcohol use challenges that can happen during the transition to college, in particular during this pandemic.” 

The study participants were the first group to enroll in the Pathways to College Health study, led by the Genes, Environment and Youth Development Lab. The goal of this long-term study is to identify risk and protective factors in college students. The research team asked participants whether they experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety, how often and how much they drank alcohol, and about their relationship with their parents. 

Because the study launched in October 2020, Su and her team assessed what impact the pandemic had on the students’ transition to college. The participants answered questions about whether the COVID-19 pandemic had resulted in major life events such as a loved one being ill or hospitalized, or whether it was associated with job loss. The researchers also asked how much the participants worried about how the disease affects themselves and their loved ones.

The participants were classified into four groups based on their patterns of alcohol use behaviors and mental health during their college transition: well-adjusted; experiencing mental health problems; using alcohol; and those who reported both using alcohol and experiencing mental health problems. 

Students who reported that COVID-19 had caused stressful life events like job loss or the hospitalization of a loved one were more likely to be in the alcohol use group or among those who reported both alcohol use and mental health problems. 

Worrying about the pandemic increased the risk of experiencing mental health problems but not alcohol use.

“We found substantial variation in student adjustment to college during a pandemic, and the good news is a bit more than half of students adapted quite well,” Su said. “Before the pandemic, mental health challenges were an issue for college students, with about one in five reporting depressive and anxiety symptoms. The findings from this study show that mental health is an even more important issue today, especially for students who have experienced more COVID-19-related stressors.” 

Having a high quality relationship with their parents meant students were less likely to be negatively impacted by the pandemic. These students were less likely to experience mental health problems and to report both alcohol use and mental health problems.

“Our findings also show that students can continue to lean on their parents, particularly during these difficult times,” Su said.

Toward resilience by understanding risk and protection

One of the main goals of Su’s research is to understand what effect factors like genes, friends or the family environment have on whether someone is well adjusted, experiences mental health challenges or misuses alcohol. 

“It is important to understand the factors that promote resilience, to know which factors make some students continue to struggle,” Su said. “In the future, we plan to look at how genes interact with experiences, including stressors related to COVID-19, and how someone’s genetic risk comes together with their different environmental experiences to shape mental health and alcohol use patterns over time.” 

The study was funded by a grant from the Institute for Mental Health Research and funds from ASU. Two of Su’s students contributed to the study: recent ASU alumna Isobel Conroy and current graduate student Angel Trevino. 

Science writer, Psychology Department


Students inside, outside correctional units attend same 'Inside-Out' class

Participants learn, share, seek to understand each other’s lives, perspectives

March 11, 2022

Imagine a class so meaningful to students that one says it is changing her life, while another pledges to cherish the experience she’s having for the rest of hers. A third calls it the most important class he’s taken in his degree program.

Still another, an exchange student from England, says the class was a major reason she decided to spend her year abroad at Arizona State University. Stock photo of a person's silhouette against a backdrop of iron bars. Stock photo by Nicholas Kwok/Unsplash Download Full Image

“The class has taught me to see beyond a person's current situation or past choices to see who a person truly is, and how much difference we can make to our own lives,” she said.

CRJ 317, known as Inside-Out, is coordinated through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program and is offered by the ASU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry.

An equal number of “outside” students from ASU campuses and “inside” students from a local prison are the class’ members. They meet weekly in person within a state correctional facility. With guidance from their instructors, students ask and answer questions of each other as they share and compare life inside and outside the correctional system and seek ways to improve it.

The spring semester 2022 section meets at a women’s medium security unit in Goodyear, Arizona, led by criminology and criminal justice doctoral students Caitlin Matekel and Danielle Haverkate. Earlier sections involved male incarcerated students while the current semester is just the second to include students living inside a women’s facility.

Inside, outside students must meet same requirements

All 20 students in the course use the same syllabus and must meet identical class requirements, said Associate Professor Kevin Wright, who is director of the ASU Center for Correctional Solutions.

Wright taught the first class offered in Arizona in spring semester 2016, and several sections since. He said financial contributions to the Inside-Out Prison Exchange fund pay for books, fees and travel costs for students taking the course.

“With that support, students both inside and outside the correctional system will be able to collaborate on solutions to improve the system,” he said.

The outside students quoted in this story are being identified by only their first names to protect their privacy.

“Inside-Out is life-changing,” said Shayna, a class member. “I have gained new perspectives that inspired and solidified my passion for entering the field of criminal justice. I am grateful for the impact this program has, and for the people involved who have all contributed to each other’s lives immensely.”

Neil, another member of the class, said it is the most important class he’s taken since being in the ASU criminology and criminal justice program.

“The concepts, institutions and problems in our justice system now have real faces and real people attached to them, and it is incredibly powerful for concepts that I have spent years learning about to come to life in a class setting,” Neil said. “I would highly recommend this program to any (criminology and criminal justice) major; the benefits of taking the course cannot be overstated."

‘These women will never be forgotten’

Another class member, Shannon, said she greatly values the opportunity the class provides for students to be in a room containing 20 students and two instructors from different walks of life coming together to talk.

“We are all different and come with our own stories, yet we can connect like no one could have imagined,” said Shannon, who said she overcame initial doubts about the class. “I’m so happy I didn’t back out, because I wouldn’t change this for the world. I will cherish this semester for the rest of my life. These women will never be forgotten.”

Eleanor, the exchange student from England, said enrolling in Inside-Out was one of the principal influences on her decision to travel several thousand miles to spend a year at ASU.

“The class has impacted me in many personal ways, and has solidified my own intentions to start a career in the future that can improve the criminal justice system and the corrections system,” Eleanor said. “I hope to see more classes such as these being offered, and I hope that I can begin the process of convincing my home university to bring their version of the Inside-Out program back.”

Inside-Out was founded at Temple University in 1997, when the first class met inside the Philadelphia prison system. Nearly a quarter-century later, its over 1,200 trained instructors from nearly every state and 12 other nations have served more than 60,000 students.

Matekel said she and Haverkate carefully prepare before the semester’s start to choose both outside and inside students who are best-suited for the environment: people, she said, who are ready to engage.

Matekel said the students have “cultivated a very safe space” for each individual to interact and collaborate.

“They establish strong boundaries off the bat, but after that, we have the participants decide for themselves what they want to share and how,” she said. “Our students are showing incredible patience for each other. It’s amazing to see. In one activity, we asked students whether they would slow down or speed up time. The ensuing discussion was incredible.”

Matekel said the students are learning to have an impact now rather that wait until graduation or release from incarceration.

“They’re having powerful conversations. It is an opportunity to experience the world they will enter when they start their careers, seeing what the system really looks like.” she said.

Wright said one of his favorite indicators of how well students enjoy the class is when they complain that it won’t meet during spring break.

“They say, ‘Can’t we still come in?’” he said.

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions