College Student Psychological Distress: Relationship to Self-Esteem and Career Decision Self-Efficacy Beliefs.

Author:Thompson, Mindi N.

College students experience a number of stressors, such as adjustment to a new environment, postgraduation planning, and the balancing of changing roles and responsibilities. These stressors may contribute to increased rates of psychological distress that have implications for their educational and career development. The purpose of this study was to extend understanding of the nature of the relationships among psychological distress, self-esteem, and career decision self-efficacy (CDSE) beliefs. Results from 292 undergraduate students demonstrated support for the proposed hypotheses. Psychological distress negatively related to self-esteem and to CDSE. Self-esteem was positively related to, yet distinct from, CDSE, and both self-esteem and psychological distress contributed unique variance to the prediction of CDSE. Results highlight the importance of attending to student psychological distress in the provision of career counseling services. Future research that centralizes mental health is needed to better understand relationships among career development processes over time and within diverse student populations.

Keywords: self-efficacy beliefs, career decision self-efficacy, psychological distress, self-esteem, college students


College students experience a myriad of stressors as they transition into young adulthood while balancing competing demands related to academics, social relationships, and personal needs (Hudd et al., 2000; Pedrelli, Nyer, Yeung, Zulauf, & Wilens, 2015). Given their unique life stressors and developmental tasks, it is not surprising that many college students experience psychological distress (Pedrelli et al., 2015). In a large epidemiologic study, Blanco et al. (2008) found that nearly half of college-age individuals (i.e., individuals ages 19-25) met the American Psychiatric Association's (1994) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.) criteria for a psychiatric disorder. Evidence suggests that anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed and treated psychiatric disorders among college students (American College Health Association, 2015; Center for Collegiate Mental Health [CCMH], 2017). Research has demonstrated that nearly three quarters of individuals with lifetime mental health diagnoses have their first onset before age 25 (Kessler et al., 2007), highlighting the importance of attending to mental health in college students' career development.

The prevalence of anxiety and depression as presenting concerns for treatment among college students increased every year during the most recently assessed 4-year period in the United States (CCMH, 2017) and in other countries (e.g., LeViness, Bershad, & Gorman, 2017; Saleh, Camart, & Romo, 2017). As a result, university and college counseling centers have witnessed increased demand for counseling services and an increase in students' severity of mental health symptomatology (CCMH, 2017; Kitzrow, 2003). Between 2009 and 2015, there was a 30% increase in the number of students receiving counseling services across more than 100 college counseling centers (CCMH, 2017). Given these high rates of psychological distress, it is important for career development professionals to understand its relationships to academic and career outcomes. The aim of this study was to further our understanding of the relationships of college students' psychological distress to self-esteem and career decision-making self-efficacy in order to inform the provision of holistic career services.

Psychological Distress and Educational and Career Development

Psychological distress is important to consider in relationship to college students' educational and career development. A growing body of research (Eisenberg, Golberstein, & Hunt, 2009; Yanover & Thompson, 2008) has documented that psychological distress can have negative implications for academic performance, academic achievement, and college dropout rates. For example, Eisenberg et al. (2009) demonstrated lower grade point averages and higher rates of college dropout prior to degree completion among students who positively screened for depression and anxiety when compared with their college student peers with lower levels of reported depression and anxiety. In another study (Yanover & Thompson, 2008), evidence indicated that college students with higher levels of eating disorders and distress related to body image had lower grade point averages. Some research also has demonstrated that psychological distress relates to career development outcomes, and that experiences with racism (Swim, Hyers, Cohen, Fitzgerald, & Bylsma, 2003) or classism (Thompson & Subich, 2013) contributed to heightened levels of distress. In a sample of 329 college students of color, Constantine and Flores (2006) found that greater psychological distress as measured by the Brief Symptom Inventory was associated with higher levels of career indecision, career uncertainty, and family conflict, yet attention to mental health symptomatology within the career development literature has been relatively limited (Swanson, 2012), and little attention has been directed to examining the relationships among psychological distress, self-efficacy beliefs, and self-esteem.

Psychological Distress and Self-Efficacy Beliefs

Self-efficacy beliefs are beliefs that people hold about their capabilities to successfully plan and execute performance (Bandura, 1997; Thompson & Graham, 2015). Self-efficacy beliefs are divided into two domains: content and process (Choi et al., 2012). The content domain assesses self-efficacy beliefs for interests or specific career areas (e.g., Betz & Luzzo, 1996), whereas the process domain assesses self-efficacy beliefs for making particular decisions (Choi et al., 2012). Career decision self-efficacy (CDSE) beliefs, in particular, refer to one's confidence in completing career decision-making tasks.

In his early articulations of social cognitive theory, Bandura (1977, 1986) emphasized the importance of learning experiences within specific domains that individuals use to gauge their self-efficacy with respect to performing well in that domain. Emotional arousal and physiological arousal were posited as a type of learning experience that acts as a source of self-efficacy beliefs. In other words, an individual's level of physiological or emotional arousal has an impact on performance on specific tasks and decisions (Bandura, 1977). Specifically, overly high or low levels of arousal can impede performance, leading to avoidance of tasks or negative outcomes associated with particular goals. On the other hand, when individuals experience appropriate levels of arousal when completing a task or considering a goal, they are more likely to feel efficacious about their ability to persist toward that task or goal (Bandura, 1977).

Not surprisingly, some scholars (e.g., Bandura, 1977; Betz, 1992; Betz, Hammond, & Multon, 2005) have noted the importance of understanding physiological and affective states in relationship to career development constructs, including CDSE. In a sample of undergraduate freshmen, for example, Isik (2012) showed that trait anxiety and negative affect negatively related to CDSE and that positive affect positively related to CDSE. Yet, attention to mental health symptomatology within the career development literature has been minimal (Swanson, 2012), and no research has specifically examined the relationship between psychological distress and CDSE as measured by a symptom inventory. On the basis of research that has demonstrated a negative relationship between anxiety and negative affect and vocational outcomes (Isik, 2012) and the pathways posited by Bandura (1977), the following hypothesis was proposed:

Hypothesis 1: Psychological distress is negatively related to CDSE.

Psychological Distress and Global Self-Esteem

Global self-esteem is conceptualized as an individual's self-worth, attitudes toward the self, and perceived self-value (Wang & Castaneda-Sound, 2008). Global self-esteem has been demonstrated to relate to important educational and career development outcomes, including academic achievement, development of effective coping skills, and career indecision (e.g., Mann, Hosman, Schaalma, & de Vries, 2004). In addition, prior research (e.g., Beck, Brown, Steer, Kuyken, & Grisham, 2001; Mann et al., 2004) has indicated a relationship between psychological distress and self-esteem. For example, higher levels of psychological distress (including symptoms of depression and anxiety) negatively correlate with global self-esteem (Eisenbarth, 2012; Hudd et al., 2000; Negga, Applewhite, & Livingston, 2007) within samples of college students.

On the basis of these findings, the following hypothesis was proposed:

Hypothesis 2: Psychological distress is negatively related to self-esteem.

Relationships Among Psychological Distress, CDSE, and Self-Esteem

Self-efficacy beliefs are thought to represent a more specific construct that may be reflective of, but distinct from, global self-esteem (Bandura, 1977; Friedlander, Reid, Shupak, & Cribbie, 2007; J. Lane, Lane, & Kyprianou, 2004). For example, although self-esteem is linked to self-efficacy beliefs through its impact on appraisal processes and selection of coping strategies, self-efficacy beliefs are reflective of an individual's beliefs in his or her ability to execute specific tasks that may or may not be related to an individual's overall assessment of his or her self-esteem (e.g., Bandura, 1997). In other words, a person's belief that he or she can confidently engage in career decision-making processes may not be reflective of his or her overall sense of self. Although prior scholars (e.g., Choi et al., 2012) have demonstrated that global self-esteem is related to, but distinct from...

To continue reading