It Cuts Both Ways: Supporting the Success of College Students with Mental Health Challenges. a Grounded Theory Analysis

Few qualitative studies exist about college students with mental health challenges and how they succeed and persist in college. Previous studies of college students with mental health challenges have largely been conducted using quantitative measures. To respond to this gap in the literature, this qualitative study explored how college juniors and seniors with a previously diagnosed mental disorder were able to persist and succeed toward degree completion. This research makes available an increased understanding of the common experiences of academically successful college students with mental health challenges and an emergent theory about their success. This qualitative inquiry, which referenced constructivism and pragmatism as its underpinnings, used grounded theory methodology to develop a deeper understanding of the participants’ experiences. Twenty-four participants were identified through convenience and purposive sampling. Each participant was enrolled in an undergraduate program at a private university in the Western United States, self-identified as having been diagnosed with a mental health challenge, had completed at least 60 academic units, and had maintained a G.P.A. of 2.0. Participants were challenged by varied mental health diagnoses, including anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit disorder, traumatic brain injury, and eating disorders. Participants submitted responses to an on-line survey, were interviewed in person, and were invited to submit post interview journals. The data were collected through all the methods described but predominately through semi-structured interviews. Data analysis generated six themes, which formed an emergent theory that explored the lived experiences of college students with mental health challenges. The six themes were: the common experiences of students with mental health challenge, the role of relationships, campus integration, mental health identity, the role of campus services, and self-care. The grounded theory that emerged from this inquiry offers a model for understanding how college students with mental health challenges are able to persist and succeed. The findings suggest key information about the persistence of college students with mental health challenges and provides vital recommendations for students, faculty, and staff about how to best support student success and create of more inclusive educational communities.


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