“We’re All in This Together”: Student perceptions of coping and social support at a Christian campus during COVID-19
Nia Johnson, PhD, Samford University
Assistant Professor, Communication and Media
Ashley George, PhD, Samford University
Assistant Professor, Communication and Media
Betsy Emmons, PhD, Samford University
Associate Professor, Communication and Media
Dannie Waller, Samford University
In Fall 2020, campus student life was either suspended or greatly modified to allow for social distancing and to reduce COVID-19 transmission. In this research, 112 students based at a mid-sized Christian university answered a 107-question survey to explore their perceptions and use of coping strategies and social support during this semester. Results indicated that the most popular coping strategies were planning and reframing thinking, followed closely by faith-focused coping strategies. Results further indicated several strong linkages between different coping strategies, as well as relationships between perceptions of available social support and the type of coping styles used. The results suggest that the university’s attempts at keeping some in-person opportunities for students were warranted during the first full semester impacted by COVID-19.
As the warnings about a pending global public health crisis became dire in early March 2020, institutions of education across the United States made the difficult choice to close in-person operations (Smalley, 2021). The disruption to mental health has been an emerging area of concern over the aftermath of COVID-19 regulations (Usher et al., 2020). Social distancing required the modification or suspension of usual social experiences such as Greek life meetings, corporate worship, classroom interaction and even casual visiting in dorms. Societal concerns over the mental toll that such social isolation might take has been in nascent discussions (Pietrabissa & Simpson, 2020; Chen & Lucock, 2022; Son et al., 2020), with some concern that the removal of the education system’s built-in social opportunities has harmed student mental health (Want et al., 2020).
Given the unique social situation students found themselves in during the Fall 2020 semester, the first full semester impacted by COVID-19, this research addresses student perception regarding the receipt of social support they needed, including faith-based initiatives, to feel empowered to succeed in a difficult campus environment. The study design is survey method (N=112) and the survey instrument was distributed via email during the Fall 2020 semester at a mid-sized Christian university in the southeastern region of the United States.
Social Support and Coping
Social support has been consistently studied because it demonstrates the goodness of humanity and reinforces moral ideals (Burleson et al., 1994; Ozbay et al., 2007; Uchino et al., 2012). It has also been shown to benefit people’s emotional and physical health (Cheong et al., 2017; Cohen & Wills, 1985; Hobfall & Stephens, 1990). Social support has also consistently been investigated as a communicative act within a meaningful relationship (Albrecht & Adelman, 1987; Albrecht, Burleson, & Sarason, 1992; Duck & Silver, 1990; Sarason, Sarason, & Pierce, 1990). The overall process of social support is interactive and communicative (Burleson et al., 1994). People engage in social support when they endure stress and tend to turn to others within their social networks to provide “information, comfort, perspective, and aid” (Thoits, 1986). Participating in social support ultimately helps people cope with their stress more effectively, thus lessening the likelihood of dealing with the various health ramifications that can arise from these issues (Goldsmith, 2004).
Social Support and College Students
Emerging adults are those that classify somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. A person is considered an emerging adult when they are between the ages of 18 and 29 (Arnett, 2004). This is also considered to be the time in a person’s life where the most change occurs, e.g. graduating high school, beginning college, getting married and starting a family, beginning a career, and moving out of the childhood family home environment (Lane & Fink, 2015). Because of these significant transitions, it is essential for emerging adults to have strong support networks, especially as many mental illnesses first develop during this life stage (Ingram & Gallagher, 2010). Moreover, emerging adults who have high availability of social support during these transitional times are less likely to develop mental illness; they also have greater life satisfaction, a more positive outlook, and are able to cope with transitional stressors with more confidence (Lane, 2014; Lane, 2015).
Overall, college students who have stronger support systems are less likely to experience stress or develop depression (Ruthig et al., 2008). Simply knowing that social support is available if needed is linked to better mental health for students (Chu et al., 2010; Cohen and Wills, 1985; Lakey and Cronin, 2008). In fact, social support was found to be helpful with dissolving suicidal intentions among college students (Rice, 2015).
Christian Higher Education and Student Support
Many prior studies have shown that student religious faith has played an important role in mental health. Students at a faith-based university who felt mature in their faith were able to cope better under stress in college (Knabb & Grigorian-Routin, 2014). Similar findings at another Christian university noted that students who felt detached from a spiritual ideal and lacked social support were more likely to experience depression symptoms (Klausli & Caudill, 2018). Berry and York (2011) likewise noted that religiosity was an important variable in student mental health and that faith could mitigate mental health concerns, even offering protection against depression triggers. Further, according to Strom (2021), those who practice a faith are able to cope more effectively with traumatic events by turning to the support found in their religious community. He found that those who view personal relationships through their faith and handle problems through faith-based means, like prayer and scripture, perceived greater social support, better satisfaction with life, better resiliency, and less anxiety and loneliness (Strom 2021).
COVID-19 and College Student Social Support
It has been documented that college students experienced a great deal of stress during the COVID-19 pandemic; in fact, rates of depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts increased significantly among this population (Wang et al., 2020). The disruption to their college life and routine was a contributor to this stress. In March 2020, when universities closed to in-person instruction and most students were sent off campus, most universities changed the in-person learning experience to a virtual one. This included shifting courses to an online learning management system. Over the summer, as universities made the decision to open for in-person instruction, the reality of having to start courses in a non-usual way meant considering how to assist students with expectations of what their learning experiences would look like. Students would have to navigate an on-campus environment rife with restrictions that would inhibit the most basic functions of student life.
However, there is a gap in the research regarding what happens when in-person campus resources for social activity move to a virtual space. A situation like COVID-19 is new to college campuses, so it was unknown how an overt shift to digital access might affect students. This study addresses part of this research gap with student response to how invested they felt when physical spaces were taken away as a place for social support. Spiritual response as compared to other support mechanisms is compared in this study as well, given the Christian higher education environment and how faith can impact coping.
It is important to note for this study that the university represented in the research chose to open campus in Fall 2020. Students were allowed to move into dorms and there was no disruption (as in a quarantine or temporary move-out) during the semester. Academic instruction commenced per faculty preference with an encouragement of in-person or hybrid (partially in-person) classes. Per university data, 86% of undergraduate courses included at least some portion of in-person instruction during the semester (either hybrid or completely in-person). All of the courses that met in person were social-distanced and both faculty and students were required to wear masks. Many spiritual activities such as Bible studies and university worship moved to virtual experiences. Student organizations had some latitude on in-person meetings if they used social distancing guidelines. Some organizations chose to meet in person, and some chose a virtual setting. Since each university made individual decisions regarding on-campus procedures during COVID-19, this research is limited in scope per in-person protocols.
To explore what support systems students used during the Fall 2020 COVID-19 semester, the researchers first used the COPE inventory (Carver, 2013) to determine what coping strategies students report they were employing:
R1: What types of coping methods do Christian university students perceive they used during the first full semester that was impacted by COVID-19?
In order to more fully investigate any linkages between students’ reported coping styles and their perceptions of available on-campus social support, two additional research questions were posed:
R2: What correlations existed between Christian university students’ perceived coping strategies and their perceptions of available on-campus support during the first full semester that was impacted by COVID-19?
R3: How did students’ perceptions of available social support impact the coping strategies they used during their semester during COVID-19?
A 107-question survey was created in Qualtrics using two popular scales for coping and social support: The Interpersonal Support Evaluation List (ISEL; Cohen & Hoberman, 1983) and COPE inventory (Carver et al., 1989). Both survey tools have been used in numerous social support and coping studies with good internal and external consistency. The scales include both individual and social support and coping mechanisms, such as praying, gathering with friends, planning or organizing, as well as substance use or disengagement. To control for whether students felt that they had social support available, subscales within the survey based on the two scales were used, with statements including “I have someone I can talk to at any time” or “I prefer to be alone when I am stressed.”
The ISEL measures perception of social support availability. Participants indicate if a statement applies to them by choosing whether the situation described is definitely false, probably false, probably true or definitely true. This study used a modified ISEL of 12 statements designed to explore the socially-supportiveness of friendships that typical college students experience while away from home. Additionally, each statement fell into subscale designed to measure perceptions of different types of social support. As developed by Cohen & Hoberman (1983), the “‘tangible’ subscale is intended to measure perceived availability of material aid; the ‘appraisal’ subscale, the perceived availability of someone to talk to about one’s problems;…the ‘belonging’ subscale, the perceived availability of people one can do things with” (p. 104). The statements used in this study included hypothetical situations like, “If I needed some help in moving to a new house or apartment, I would have a hard time finding someone to help me” (tangible); “There is someone I can turn to for advice about handling problems with my family” (appraisal); “If I wanted to have lunch with someone, I could easily find someone to join me” (belonging).
The COPE Inventory (Carver et al., 1989) measures the various strategies individuals use to endure stressful situations. Participants self-report their coping mechanisms by indicating that they “usually don’t do this at all,” “usually do this a little bit,” “usually do this a medium amount,” or “usually do this a lot” in response to 60 statements presenting actions that could be undertaken during a stressful situation. Each statement is designed to be a part of one of the 15 coping scales that comprise the COPE inventory: positive reinterpretation and growth (“I try to see it in a different light, to make it seem more positive.”); mental disengagement (“I daydream about things other than this.”); focus on and venting of emotions (“I let my feelings out.”); use of instrumental social support (“I try to get advice from someone about what to do.”); active coping (“I concentrate my efforts on doing something about it.”); denial (“I act as though it hasn’t even happened.”); religious coping (“I pray more than usual.”); humor (“I make jokes about it.”); behavioral disengagement (“I admit to myself that I can’t deal with it, and quit trying.”); restraint (“I hold off doing anything about it until the situation permits.”); use of emotional social support (“I talk to someone about how I feel.”); substance use (“I use alcohol or drugs to make myself feel better.); acceptance (“I learn to live with it.); suppression of competing activities (“I put aside other activities in order to concentrate on this.”); planning (“I try to come up with a strategy about what to do.”).
As no one coping score can be obtained via the COPE inventory (Carver, 2013), for research question three, each of the COPE inventory subscales scores served as dependent variables. The independent variables used to answer research question three were each of the ISEL subscales, as well as an overall perception of social support score.
The researchers submitted the survey to the Institutional Review Board and received distribution approval with no additions or changes noted. An initial participation question noting the use of confidential data and researcher safety with the data was included, and participants were permitted to opt-out of the survey at any time. As the survey was digital within Qualtrics, students could simply opt out by closing their browser window.
The researchers viewed the survey results to ensure that the data was ready for tabulation. Survey results were then tabulated via response frequencies, which offered basic categorical statistical response data. Pearson correlation coefficients were then run to test student responses to the scales used in the study. Cronbach alpha tests were run to ensure statistical consistency.
The survey was distributed via email mid-semester during Fall 2020 at a mid-sized Christian university in the southeastern region of the United States. There were 116 responses, with four surveys that were not fully completed, N=112. Of the 112 survey respondents, 83% were identified female students and 17% were identified male students. This corresponds to the university’s overall demographic makeup of 63% female students and 37% male students. The student participants varied in age from 17-23 years old, with a mean age of 19. All participants were full-time students and were not working full-time.
The COPE inventory (Carver et al., 1989) was used to answer the first research question. For the COPE inventory, no overall coping score can be computed; however, there are 15 subscales that can be used to determine the ways students reported responding to times of stress (Carver, 2013). These subscales are: positive reinterpretation and growth, mental disengagement, focus on and venting of emotions, use of instrumental social support, active coping, denial, religious coping, humor, behavioral disengagement, restraint, use of emotional social support, substance use, acceptance, suppression of competing activities, planning.
A higher score indicates greater use of this style of coping during times of stress. Score ranges and means for each subscale (n=112) are represented in Table 1.
As noted in the responses, positive reinterpretation and growth was the most-used coping strategy, followed closely by religious coping. The similarity between the two responses indicates an almost equal reliance on the strategies. Results indicated a high preference for students to use their faith as a coping strategy. Students were least likely to use disengagement, substance abuse or denial in coping strategies.
COPE inventory subscales were investigated using Pearson correlation coefficients to discern correlations among the coping strategies. There were several statistically significant correlations among these subscales. While the coping strategies noted by frequencies helped discern the most popular strategies, the correlations offered insight into overall coping strategies. These correlations are represented in Table 2.
Respondents indicated a high likelihood of using religious coping and positive reinterpretation, with r = .464. Even higher, however, was the correlation between positive reinterpretation and the use of instrumental social support (e.g. tangible assistance like receiving food from a friend).
The highest correlation was the link between planning and active coping (e.g. physical activity) at r = .794, demonstrating the strongest Pearson coefficient relationship in the data for two types of individual proactive support strategies. The second highest correlation was the link between receiving instrumental social support and emotional support, at r = .739. The high statistical significance suggests a strong correlation between the two interpersonal forms of social support.
The Interpersonal Support Evaluation List (ISEL) was administered to answer the second research question. According to Cohen and Hoberman (1983), the ISEL has good internal consistency, as they reported a Cronbach alpha coefficient of .77. In the current study, the Cronbach alpha coefficient was .75.
For the ISEL, a higher score is equated with higher levels of perceived support. In the current study, the total support scores ranged from 2.5 to 5.0, with a mean score of 4.16. Respondents were also measured on the appraisal, tangible, and belonging subscales of the ISEL. However, these subscales did not produce good internal consistency individually. Cronbach alpha coefficient for the appraisal subscale was .38; for the tangible subscale, it was .47; and for the belonging subscale, it was .48. Appraisal subscale scores ranged from 2.5 to 5.0, with a mean score of 4.22. Tangible subscale scores ranged from 2.5 to 5.0, with a mean score of 4.19. Belonging subscale scores ranged from 1.75 to 5.0, with a mean score of 4.07.
The relationships among appraisal support, tangible support, and belonging support were investigated using Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient. Preliminary analyses were performed to ensure no violation of the assumptions of normality, linearity and homoscedasticity. There was a positive correlation between appraisal support and tangible support (r=.54, n= 112, p<.000), with high levels of appraisal support associated with high levels of tangible support. There was also a positive correlation between appraisal support and belonging support (r=.50, n= 112, p<.000), with high levels of appraisal support associated with high levels of belonging support. Further, there was a strong, positive correlation between tangible support and belonging support (r=.61, n= 112, p<.000), with high levels of tangible support associated with high levels of belonging support.
To answer research question three, the researchers started by investigating the relationships between perceptions of availability of social support, as determined by the ISEL, and the coping strategies participants reported using. These relationships were investigated using Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient. Preliminary analyses were performed to ensure no violation of the assumptions of normality, linearity and homoscedasticity. There were statistically significant correlations between the perception of availability of social support and six of the coping strategies investigated using the COPE inventory: positive reinterpretation and growth, use of instrumental social support, religious coping, restraint, use of emotional social support, and planning. Table 3 illustrates these findings.
To investigate these relationships more fully, regressions were run to determine if the type of coping strategy employed was predicted by the perceived availability of social support. Statistically significant regressions resulted from among the same six coping strategies as the correlations.
A multiple regression found that the appraisal, tangible, belonging, overall social support score, age, gender and race predicted the positive reinterpretation and growth coping strategy, F(7, 102) = 4.041, p<.001. R2 for the overall model was 21.7% with an adjusted R2 of 16.3%, a small size effect according to Cohen (1988).
A linear regression established that using positive reinterpretation and growth as a coping strategy was predicted by perceived availability of appraisal support, F(1, 110) = 15.908, p < .001; perceived availability of tangible support, F(1, 110) = 20.479, p < .001; perceived availability of belonging support, F(1, 110) = 16.516, p < .001; and an overall perception availability of social support, F(1, 110) = 27.109, p < .001.
A multiple regression showed that appraisal, tangible, belonging, overall social support, age, gender and race predicted using instrumental social support as a coping strategy, F(7, 102) = 4.450, p=.023. R2 for the overall model was 14.4% with an adjusted R2 of 8.5%, a small size effect according to Cohen (1988).
A linear regression established that using instrumental social support as a coping strategy was predicted by perceived availability of appraisal support, F(1, 110) = 14.464, p < .001; perceived availability of tangible support, F(1, 110) = 8.077, p=.005; perceived availability of belonging support, F(1, 110) = 5.237, p=.024; and an overall perception availability of social support, F(1, 110) = 12.817, p < .001.
A linear regression established that using a religious coping strategy was predicted by perceived availability of appraisal support, F(1, 110) = 4.731, p=.032; perceived availability of tangible support, F(1, 110) = 6.817, p=.010; perceived availability of belonging support, F(1, 110) = 5.140, p=.025; and an overall perception of availability of social support, F(1, 110) = 8.110, p=.005.
A linear regression established that perceived availability of tangible support could predict using restraint as a coping strategy, F(1, 110) = 5.361, p=.022.
A linear regression established that using an emotional coping strategy was predicted by perceived availability of appraisal support, F(1, 110) = 8.066, p=.005; perceived availability of tangible support, F(1, 110) = 5.587, p=.020; and an overall perception of availability of social support, F(1, 110) = 6.924, p=.010.
A linear regression established that using planning as a coping strategy was predicted by perceived availability of tangible support, F(1, 110) = 4.395, p=.038; an overall perception of availability of social support, F(1, 110) = 4.593, p=.034; and gender, F(1, 110) = 4.305, p=.040.
Students indicated that they, overall, could identify ways that they had specifically used coping and support strategies during the semester. Not surprisingly for Christian university students, faith was an important coping strategy. Interestingly, however, it was not the most reported coping strategy, which was positive reinterpretation and growth. The strategies were listed independently of each other, allowing respondents to choose one or both strategies. However, the two strategies were so close in means (M = 12.68; M = 12.55) that there was only a slight difference, suggesting a linkage. While beyond the scope of this study, a suggestion can be made that faith-based coping (e.g. praying, reading the Bible) and looking for the positive in a situation by “looking on the bright side” could feed off each other. Prior research is inconclusive on whether faith-driven students tend to be happier overall (see Robbins, Francis & Edwards, 2008), but there is a noted correlation in this study between reliance on faith and reframing thinking in a positive way to cope.
While faith was an important choice of coping strategy, the Pearson correlation indicated that active coping and planning were the strongest correlated strategies. Active coping (a targeted behavior to tackle stress, such as exercise) and planning both suggest an element of personal control over a situation. Planning’s main goal is to minimize uncertainty, whereas active coping is a person’s proactive solution to work through stress. These were perceived to be readily accessible in their university setting. The strong statistical significance between the two strategies helps explain how participants might have tried to keep order within their own corner of academia in a deeply uncertain time in the pandemic.
Considering what are deemed more “negative” coping strategies, there was a high correlation between denial and disengagement (r=.590) and substance abuse and denial (r=.508). Researchers are quick to note that disengagement is not always a “negative” coping strategy, as distraction can greatly calm stressors (Waugh, Shing & Furr, 2020). However, coupled with denial or substance abuse, distraction may lead to a more problematic problem of avoidance. Avoiding stress by denying it or using substances are known to provide short-term relief. A low perception of reliance on these strategies could also suggest lack of availability of such strategies. For the particular university in this study, substance use is reported at rates much lower than at large public universities, so accessibility or perceptions of substance use could have been factors. Additionally, since the mean age of respondents was 19, most of the respondents were not old enough to purchase alcohol.
Relationships between the types of social support students perceived as being available to them yielded statistically significant findings. The correlations between appraisal support and tangible support (r=.54, n= 112, p<.000) suggest strong emotional support (such as empathy and understanding) aligns with concurrent tangible support, such as making a special meal. In this study, students perceived that they could access these forms of support. There was also a positive correlation between appraisal support and belonging support (r=.50, n= 112, p<.000), demonstrating that students could access others to feel like part of a group. For a possibly isolating situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic, a perception that students had access to belonging was an important finding. Tangible support and belonging support (r=.61, n= 112, p<.000) also demonstrated high correlation. Students perceived that they could access specific tangible support with others. Again, in a pandemic situation where belonging was not a certainty, that students could access it with tangible support was a surprising and positive finding.
Investigating perceptions of availability of social support as predictors of the coping strategies used also produced interesting and statistically significant results. Perceiving that they had availability of appraisal support predicted students using positive reinterpretation and growth, use of instrumental social support, religious coping and emotional venting. Therefore, when students believed they had someone they could talk to evaluate their circumstance, they were more likely to cope in ways that involved talking through their thoughts and emotions. Perceiving an availability of tangible support, or a support system that provided for sharing of resources, predicted students using all of the six coping styles that returned statistically significant results. A perception of belonging support, or feeling part of a group, predicted students’ use of positive reinterpretation and growth, instrumental social support and religious coping strategies. Interestingly, gender predicted students’ use of emotional social support, or seeking out validation of one’s emotions and worth.
Overall, the study indicated that Christian university students called upon their faith but relied on personal elements of control (such as planning) and specific emotional social support options just as often. Perceptions of support availability also predicted coping strategies that required personal and physical interactions, like instrumental and emotional support. A vital takeaway here, then, is that universities may have made the right call to keep some in-person opportunities for students available, such as opening dorms and allowing limited in-person activities. The university in this study allowed students to move on campus and kept some in-person and hybrid classes, along with some socially-distanced activities such as professional association meetings. Since access to others for social support was viewed positively and was a source of coping used by the study participants, it can be further surmised that the value of in-person elements of higher education have value beyond academic benefits, moving into social belonging and empathy, for example.
Conversations about how COVID-19 protocols may become permanent parts of academia are still nascent as of this research. However, this research suggests that maintaining multiple avenues of in-person social support options available to students would be beneficial.
Limitations and Future Research
This study was exploratory in nature to capture a sense of student social support perceptions during a unique public health situation, COVID-19. While some important takeaways are noted in this research, there are limitations. This study investigated one student population at a university in the southeastern region of the United States with a hybrid, in-person and virtual learning “flex” environment. Results would not be generalizable for universities with differing educational infrastructures. Additionally, students with differing on-campus versus off-campus living environments would inevitably have different social support needs. This survey was also distributed during a moment in time before vaccine rollout had occurred and uncertainty about pandemic length was still high. While not significant, uncertainty can affect responses.
However, as these research results indicate, future research is warranted regarding student perceptions of social support even as universities are returning to pre-pandemic operations. This study adds insights into the students’ perceptions of coping, including the value of faith and in-person support systems. These insights can help university student affairs, spiritual affairs, and support services departments as they adjust their crisis and operational plans in the event of another situation that disrupts in-person instruction, and as they plan programs that seek to improve the overall mental health and wellbeing of their students.
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