Researchers find link between mental health, community engagement

Alex Cory

A group of ISU Researchers is analyzing data about the effects of community engagement on students’ mental health.

Bringing Theory to Practice, a nonprofit, is working with professor Robert Reason on a project to survey students from nine different universities about their attitudes toward community service and their mental health. The researchers said the study suggests that community engagement has a positive effect on mental health.

“We write the one fast way to doing well, is by doing good,” Reason said.

Reason also said it was beneficial for students’ mental health if they felt connected to their community.

The research uses the mental health continuum short-form, which asks about specific feelings during the period of a few weeks, to measure mental health.

“When students feel like they have learned the skills to change society for the better, they have greater mental health,” said Joshua Mitchell, graduate student in education, who helped with the study. 

Mitchell said it wasn’t the requirement of service learning that was a major predictor of mental health, but rather the student having an appreciation for what the act of service accomplished for the community.

“It’s not just infusing civic engagement, but it’s infusing civic engagement as well as stressing the importance of the contribution,” Mitchell said.  

Mitchell continued, saying another important takeaway from the study is the importance of campus climate, as a related study found that campus climate mattered more than individual experience for mental health. He said stronger associations for mental health came from campuses stressing the importance of getting involved with the community, rather than individual community service.

“Climate is a measure of people’s attitudes about, perceptions of and experiences within a specified context,” Mitchell said.

He went on to say that campus climate is made up of all of the people and interactions on a college campus. Faculty, staff and student attitudes all influence campus climate and shape the experiences of a campus.

“Our finding does suggest that voluntary community and civic engagement is the most powerful kind of behavior,” Reason said, adding that it is important for universities to provide opportunities for students to voluntarily engage in community service.

Mitchell said when it comes to making the experience of community service stick, it’s important for colleges to not just make it a check on a list, but an experience that the student recognizes as valuable.

“We just need to make sure they understand why they’re doing that service learning,” Mitchell said.

He said students can recognize the value of community service through discussion and reflection, which leaves them with an ingrained understanding of what they accomplished.

“It’s really everyone’s responsibility to take charge of what the campus climate is,” Mitchell said.