Supporting student parents’ unique mental health needs

Nearly four million student parents attend college every year — most are women. Parents attending colleges bring unique assets to the classroom, but too often receive inadequate support to complete their education. Through the Community College Women Succeed initiative and the College Success for Single Mothers partnership, Achieving the Dream works with partners across the country to recommend services and supports that can help student parents — and by extension their families — succeed.

A critical part of this support must be ensuring that the mental health and well-being of student parents is a priority at their institutions. As reports continue to show rising rates of mental health–related challenges faced by college students, data shows that student parents in particular are experiencing extreme stress affecting their mental health and success.

A recent study, Improving Mental Health of Student Parents: A Framework for Higher Education, released by Ascend at the Aspen Institute (Ascend) and The Jed Foundation (JED) found that more than two in five of the nearly four million student parents attending college are affected. And this recent first-person account by single parent Lesley Del Rio in The Hechinger Report illustrates just how swiftly the pandemic affected her mental health and ability to complete her education.

Key findings from the Ascend and JED report found that student parents, who are most likely to be women and students of color, include:

  • More than half of student parents say they were made to feel less welcome on campus, a figure that was even higher (67 percent) among younger student parents ages 18–29.
  • Student parents, especially those over age 25, are resilient. Student parents often report a greater sense of purpose and have significantly lower rates of substance use behaviors than non-parents. They are also incredibly committed to their educational success, engaging with their professors at much higher rates than their non-parenting peers.
  • In addition to greater financial stress, student parents are less likely than non-parents to be able to afford mental health care. Additionally, most are unaware of the services available on campus: less than half (47 percent) of student parents know about mental health outreach efforts on campus, compared with nearly 60 percent of non-parents.

The report also outlines a series of recommendations for colleges to support student parent mental health, including training counselors and other on-campus mental health providers on the unique stressors faced by parenting students, creating spaces on campus to meet the specific needs of student parents and foster a sense of belonging for students and children, regularly collect data on student parents to better inform how best to support them, among others.

"Thirty percent of community college students are parents. So why did I feel like I was all alone?"

How to implement those types of recommendations was the topic of a recent webinar — "Creating a Family Friendly Campus" — convened by the College Success for Single Mothers Project, a three-year initiative led by the National College Transition Network that is funded by ECMC Foundation and includes ATD and PERG Learning as partners.

Amber Angel, senior program coordinator of the Family Resource Center at Los Angeles Valley College, explained the two-generation philosophy that drives her and her colleague’s work. "We look at a student and recognize that their lives outside impact our ability to be successful in the classroom, and by supporting their whole family, we’re helping them reach their educational and employment goals," she said.
 
Patrick Sisneros, vice president of college services at Everett Community College, shared the college’s action plan for supporting student parents on campus. Sisneros said Everett’s plan uses Los Angeles Valley College as a model (their Family Resource Center was created over 20 years ago), but "the real source of inspiration has been our college president." Everett Community College President Dr. Daria Willis was a student parent herself and her experiences "can create new momentum around the college to better support student parents," Sisneros said.

The college is also making sure it brings current student parents to the table when examining policies and deciding what changes to make. It’s critical for student parents not only to feel that their voice is heard during conversations that will affect their experience on campus, but that they feel a sense of belonging throughout their educational journey.

Angel, who was a student parent at L.A. Valley College herself, said, "Thirty percent of community college students are parents. So why did I feel like I was all alone?"

Through the College Success for Single Mothers project, ATD and its partners hope that colleges will continue to show student parents that they are support, welcomed, and part of a community that wants them to succeed.

If you or a loved one needs support, please reach out and remember you’re not alone. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is free and 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255, or text the Crisis Text Line "HELLO" to 741741.


On November 4, 2021, ATD will host a Mental Health and Well-Being Summit as part of the Holistic Student Supports Institute. The Summit will focus on student mental health and how colleges can implement strategies to support students in this area both in and out of the classroom. Learn more and register to attend.

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