Professor Researches Impact of Chronic Health Conditions on Students

Since 2019, Kevin Criswell, PhD, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at EWU, has been investigating how chronic health conditions (CHCs) — and stigmas that can be associated with students having CHCs (including assumptions that having CHCs means that a student will not do as well as those who do not have CHCs)  — might affect the academic performance and quality of life of university students.

His findings indicate that, while some students with CHCs internalize stigma, they can also show remarkable resilience when engaging in their studies. In fact, overcoming inevitable challenges in coursework and consistently showing up to difficult classes may help prevent internalization of stigma in students with CHCs.

When Criswell started conceptualizing and designing the study, he wanted to integrate prior cancer adjustment research and his desire to improve the lives of college students, he says. His dissertation workinvolved an examination of how lung cancer survivors experience and cope with stigma. “I wanted to incorporate my prior experience with research with my passion for serving university students,” Criswell says. 

“What I wanted to do was see if stigma might be an important factor in helping us understand how the health and wellbeing of students with chronic health conditions — whether it be mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, or physical health conditions like diabetes, allergies and other conditions — might impact their academic performance,” he said, adding that a possible way CHCs might affect academic performance is “basically what we might call the mechanism of stigma.”

Criswell spent nearly a year and a half designing his investigation, with data collection beginning in the Fall of 2020. He sent online surveys to students using SurveyMonkey. A grant from Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology, funded incentives for participation (gift cards) during the 2020-21 academic year. Criswell’s overhead costs were supported by a grant from the American Psychological Foundation. He is currently seeking funding to continue this research project.

Compared to awareness of stigma, he found that internalized stigma was more strongly associated with worse overall wellbeing, academic engagement, and resilience to academic challenges. “It’s not surprising that internalized stigma is a stronger associated variable,” he says. Students are not only aware of those stigmas but have internalized them which affects them in unfortunate ways when it comes to their academic performance. “Stigma survives and has a life within the person,” says Criswell.

What was surprising about the study, according to Criswell, was that there was little difference in levels of loneliness and social quality of life between students with CHCs and students without. It is possible that distance learning affected all students’ social lives and loneliness to similar degrees.

This study is ongoing. Survey data from future student cohorts, Criswell says, is needed to compare to prior years to answer two main questions: Are results from the 2020-21 year consistent and generalizable? And does moving from an online environment to an increasingly in-person one, impact these results?

“It’s going to be interesting to see how we re-emerge together,” he adds. “My hope is [that] with the excitement of being back in person, we can leverage a little bit of that to the benefit of students, because I think that there’s a lot of opportunities we could potentially leverage for fostering [supportive] communities, basically,” he said. 

Dr. Criswell’s peer-reviewed publication, “Stigma, health, and academic performance in university students with physical and mental chronic health conditions: Baseline data report,” will appear in a future issue of Stigma and Health. It is currently available as an advance online publication and can now be accessed for free by EWU students in the PsycArticles Database through EWU Libraries:  

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