Psychological distress is common in college. Students’ suffering is mainly seen in anxious and depressive symptoms, including restlessness, tense feelings, nervousness, sadness, lost interest, and hopelessness. Approximately one in three students will report this kind of emotional suffering, proportionally much more than in the general population (one in five approximately).

Psychological distress can harm students’ academic lives—producing lower grades, missing important obligations, and dropping out of college—and also more serious personal ones such as suicidal thoughts. We must understand why so many college students are struggling with psychological distress.

Psychological Distress and Psychological Needs

According to Self-Determination Theory, an important theory in motivation science, human beings seek to satisfy three fundamental psychological needs in order to achieve well-being and purpose. These needs are:

  • Competence—I am good at this activity,
  • Autonomy—I freely choose to engage in this activity, and
  • Relatedness—I feel important to significant others and significant others are important to me.

As the sun, water, and nutrients in the soil are fundamental for a plant to grow, competence, autonomy, and relatedness are crucial for optimal psychological growth in human beings. Thwarting these needs over a long period will cause harm.

Take a few seconds to consider your own experience while in school. You may have experienced frustration when studying for an exam in a class where explanations were unclear (competence thwarting) or in a subject you disliked (autonomy thwarting), or even where the teacher was unfriendly (relatedness thwarting). Now imagine that in various courses during your studies you felt incompetent, devoid of control over your decisions, and isolated. Would this still be a fulfilling experience, or would it be a distressing one? To ask the question is to answer it.

Psychological Needs and Teachers, Peers, and Study Program

Students can try to be proactive in fulfilling their needs, choosing programs where they feel they are likely to experience competence, autonomy, and relatedness. However, these programs exist in specific social contexts that students do not control. For example, a future student may select a major in engineering because they love this discipline, but they do not control how teachers will deliver their courses, how friendly their peers will be, or how their study program will be organized. Choosing and valuing something do not mean that one can expect to automatically satisfy their psychological needs. It is up to the teachers, peers, and programs to do what is necessary to support these needs to foster optimal functioning in students during college years.

What Our Research Says About College Students’ Psychological Distress

We surveyed 1,797 students and asked about their teachers, their peers, and their study program. Specifically, we distinguished the support versus thwarting of the needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness by these three sources. We found only a marginal importance of college teachers supporting autonomy, competence, and relatedness to reduce psychological distress.

In contrast, need thwarting by peers and study programs were the big harm doers. Disappointing peer relations are easy to understand as a source of distress, but disappointing study programs may be a surprising and overlooked factor spiraling students’ psychological distress during the college years. When students find that the study program has little predictability and coherence, no implemented means to criticize the curriculum, and high workload that leads them to neglect other areas of their life, they will experience more psychological distress. This finding is especially important considering that aspects inherent to study programs could be adjusted during program evaluation processes and curriculum design to better consider students’ needs.

In conclusion, each year college students may come with the expectation to develop their passion for a given field of study and to experience well-being and purpose, but certainly not to suffer from psychological distress. Our results might help college administrations to understand their responsibility in nurturing students’ autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

For Further Reading

Gilbert, W., Bureau, J. S., Poellhuber, B., & Guay, F. (2021). Predicting college students' psychological distress through basic psychological need-relevant practices by teachers, peers, and the academic program. Motivation and Emotion, 45,436–455.

Frédéric Guay and Julien Bureau are professors at Université Laval. Their research interests include determinants and consequences of students’ autonomous/controlled motivations.

William Gilbert is a PhD candidate at the same university. His research interests include mental health and healthy life habits among college students.