Exploring the Link between Self-Construal and Distress among African American and Asian American College Students

By Christopher, Michael S.; Skillman, Gemma D. | Journal of College Counseling, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Exploring the Link between Self-Construal and Distress among African American and Asian American College Students


Christopher, Michael S., Skillman, Gemma D., Journal of College Counseling


The authors investigated ethnicity, self-construal, and distress among African American and Asian American college students. African American students expressed more salient independent self-construals, whereas Asian American students expressed more salient interdependent self-construals. As hypothesized, among African American participants, distress was positively related to interdependent self-construal and negatively associated with independent self-construal. Contrary to prediction, the same pattern was found for Asian American participants. Multicultural clinical practice implications are presented.

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The combination of academic, social, financial, and other adjustment demands that typically are associated with the college transition, occurring at a time when individuals often are developmentally predisposed to the onset of various psychological disorders, can increase a student's vulnerability to distress (Voelker, 2004). For example, national surveys have indicated that symptoms of depression are most prevalent among people who are 18 to 29 years old (Schieman, Van Gundy, & Taylor, 2001) and that nearly 75% of individuals with diagnosable anxiety disorders experienced their first symptoms before they were 21 years old (Kessler et al., 2005). Similarly, Furr, Westefeld, McConnell, and Jenkins (2001) reported that 53% of students had experienced some form of depression when in college, 9% had contemplated committing suicide, and 1% had engaged in at least one suicide attempt. In the American College Health Association's (2007) National College Health Assessment, 93% of students reported feeling overwhelmed during the previous year and 44% reported that they "felt so depressed it was difficult to function" (p. 205).

Ethnicity and College Student Distress

Researchers have suggested that ethnic minority students, in comparison with their ethnic majority peers, may be even more likely to experience distress and express apprehension about the rigors of college (Jones, Castellanos, & Cole, 2002). Moreover, generally speaking, ethnic minority students tend to encounter unique challenges not experienced by majority students (Marcus et al., 2003). Ethnic minority students may experience heightened distress as a result of experiences with racial discrimination, difficulty adapting to a predominantly White college culture, and community disengagement (Gloria, Hird, & Navarro, 2001). Although extant research has indicated that these types of additional stressors affect various ethnic groups on campus (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001), we focused only on African American and Asian American college students in the present study.

African American students seem more likely than do their White American peers to report unfair treatment on college and university campuses (Fries-Britt & Turner, 2001; Walden, 1994). African American students also have reported experiencing greater social isolation and more difficulties with interpersonal interactions with faculty and peers (Sedlacek, 1987; Swim, Hyers, Cohen, Fitzgerald, & Bylsma, 2003). Furthermore, according to Landrine and Klonoff (1996), 98% of African Americans experienced racial discrimination during the past year, and 100% reported experiencing racial discrimination at some point during their lifetime. In turn, experiences of discrimination and racism are key factors leading to distress and other mental health concerns among racial and ethnic minority students, and among African American learners in particular (R. Clark, Anderson, Clark, & Williams, 1999).

Asian American students also tend to report more experiences of depression and social anxiety than do their majority student peers (Okazaki, 1997, 2000; Okazaki & Kallivayalil, 2002; Sue, Ino, & Sue, 1983). Lee, Lei, and Sue (2001) suggested that Asian American students tend to experience considerable stress and anxiety as a result of perceived parental pressures to achieve academically. …

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