Engagement opportunities, such as Day of Caring, contribute to a campus climate supportive of community service — an important indicator of good student mental health. Photo by Wyeth Lynch.

School of Education links college student community engagement and mental health

Iowa State University researchers are analyzing nationwide survey data on the positive effects of community engagement on college students’ mental health.

Robert Reason, a professor in the School of Education, is working with the national Bringing Theory to Practice Project — a nonprofit that examines linkages between student learning, civic engagement, and well-being — in surveying students at nine colleges across the country on their attitudes toward community service and their overall mental health.

Preliminary findings show that a campus emphasis on community engagement and the climate it creates are positively related to mental health.

“Institutions should emphasize the importance of community service, both on and off campus,” Reason said. “They should remove any obstacles from doing community service and find ways to strongly encourage students to become involved in the community.”

Measuring community service, mental health

The research uses two tools: the Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory and the Mental Health Continuum.

The inventory measures campus attitudes on community service. The continuum assesses self-reported mental health levels of the students at each college on a spectrum from “flourishing” to “languishing.”

Researchers found that only self-elected volunteering has positive effects on student mental health. That differs from mandated community service, which is usually course-based service learning projects.

Campus climate — or the general sense of importance an institution places on being part of a community — is also key.

“If students report that the institution values community service and encourages it, then those students report higher mental health — regardless of whether or not they participated in community service,” Reason said.

Preliminary findings show that colleges with the best mental health scores tend to emphasize both civic and community engagement. 

“We’re able to find a pretty good connection between feeling as though you’re part of the community, giving back to the community, and mental health,” Reason said.

Joshua Mitchell, a doctoral candidate in the School of Education and staff member in the Research Institute for Studies in Education, coordinates the inventory’s administration.

“Mental health is an important concern for colleges and universities because it influences student learning and development,” he said. “Students who are happy and satisfied with life are more likely to be engaged on campus and in the classroom.”

He explains that three components comprise good mental health: life satisfaction (emotional well-being), meaningful relationships (social well-being), and a sense of purpose (psychological well-being).

 Infusing civic engagement into college

Ashley Finley, the national evaluator for Bringing Theory to Practice, already sees valuable information coming from the surveys. The organization funded the research.

“When students talk about learning and their civic experiences, they say things like, ‘This experience gave me a sense of who I am in the world,’ or ‘This experience helped me to feel more self-confident,’” Finley said. “We’re trying to understand how much these things matter and what most facilitates these emotions.”

Finley said researchers know much about the positive effects of civic engagement on student learning, but far less about how it influences students’ non-cognitive development.

She believes the research will encourage more campuses to evaluate what she calls the most undervalued aspect of college life, and infuse civic engagement into every level of curricular and co-curricular offerings.

“The results, in my mind, emphasize the need for campuses to not just think about singular experiences for students, but a whole campus approach to civic commitment,” she said.

Reason and Finley will present findings from the research in January at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. The research will also be published in the Journal of College and Character and Change magazine.