Experience of Graduate Counseling Students During COVID-19: Application for Group Counseling Training

Bilal Urkmez, Chanda Pinkney, Daniel Bonnah Amparbeng, Nanang Gunawan, Jennifer Ojiambo Isiko, Brandon Tomlinson, Christine Suniti Bhat


The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many universities moving abruptly from face-to-face to online instruction. One group of students involved in this transition was master’s-level counseling students. Their experiential group counseling training (EGCT) program started in a face-to-face format and abruptly transitioned to an online format because of COVID-19. In this phenomenological study, we examined these students’ experiences of participating and leading in six face-to-face and four online EGCT groups. Two focus groups were conducted, and three major themes emerged: positive participation attributes, participation-inhibiting attributes, and suggestions for group counseling training. The findings point to additional learning and skill development through the online group experience as well as its utility as a safe space to process the novel experience brought about by COVID-19.

Keywords: experiential group counseling training, phenomenological, COVID-19, face-to-face, online format


Most of what is known about group counseling and the training of group counselors has been learned from groups that occur in face-to-face group environments (Kozlowski & Holmes, 2014). This includes seminal works on group counseling’s therapeutic factors, such as universality, altruism, instillation of hope, cohesiveness, existential factors, interpersonal learning, self-understanding, and catharsis (Yalom & Leszcz, 2005). Researchers have found positive contributions of group therapeutic factors toward therapy outcomes (Behenck et al., 2017), and they have explored the experiences of group members in face-to-face group counseling settings, including the interpersonal and intrapersonal processes of members (Holmes & Kozlowski, 2015; Krug, 2009; Murdock et al., 2012). By contrast, there is considerably less research on online group counseling (Kozlowski & Holmes, 2014) or group counselors’ training in online modalities (Kit et al., 2014; Kozlowski & Holmes, 2017).

In this qualitative study, we utilized the phenomenological method to explore and compare master’s-level students’ experiences of participating in and leading during six face-to-face and four online experiential group counseling training (EGCT) groups as part of an introductory group counseling course. The master’s-level counseling students began their EGCT in face-to-face groups, and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they continued to meet in four online groups after their university decided to suspend all face-to-face instruction.

Experiential Groups in Counselor Education
     Group counseling training is one of the eight core areas of required training for counselors stipulated by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP; 2015). In order to learn the complex group processes necessary for effective group counseling, master’s-level counseling students are required to participate in EGCT (Association for Specialists in Group Work [ASGW], 2007; CACREP, 2015). For CACREP-accredited master’s programs, at least 10 clock hours of group participation during one academic semester are required (CACREP, 2015). During this experiential training, students learn to be both group counseling participants and group counseling leaders (Ieva et al., 2009) and gain valuable experience in and insight into group dynamics, group processes, and catharsis (Ohrt et al., 2014).

Master’s-level counseling students “benefit a great deal when allowed to develop practical and relevant clinical skills” (Steen et al., 2014, p. 236). Experiential training in group counseling also promotes self-awareness, personal growth, and a greater understanding of vulnerability and self-disclosure in the learners (Yalom & Leszcz, 2005). The experiential component of group counseling training provides an environment for counseling students to experience vicarious modeling, self-disclosure, validation, and genuineness from their classmates (Kiweewa et al., 2013). Finally, these experiential opportunities promote students’ self-confidence (Ohrt et al., 2014; Shumaker et al., 2011; Steen et al., 2014).

Online Counseling
     Barak and Grohol (2011) defined online counseling as “a mental health intervention between a patient (or a group of patients) and a therapist, using technology as the modality of communication” (p. 157). Counselors are increasingly using more digital modalities in their practice (Anthony, 2015; Richards & Viganó, 2013), and it is being seen as a viable alternative to support clients (Hearn et al., 2017). Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, counselors have begun to use more online modalities to provide counseling services (Peng et al., 2020). Online counseling began to emerge as a potential solution for mental health services when providers were forced to discontinue or scale down in-person services and adjust to virtual formats during the pandemic (Békés & Aafjes-van Doorn, 2020; Peng et al., 2020; Wind et al., 2020). Peng et al. (2020) noted the effects COVID-19 have had on the delivery of mental health services in China. They mentioned the governmental and authorities’ support for preparedness and response and the multidisciplinary enhancement of remote intervention quality for clients. They also suggested that governments should integrate the mental health interventions related to COVID-19 into existing public mental health emergency preparedness and response structures.

Because of the growing importance of online counseling, it is essential to train counseling students to conduct online counseling, including online group counseling, effectively. Understanding master’s students’ experiences in online EGCT can help identify potential challenges they may face during their training. It is also important to explore students’ experiences in face-to-face and online EGCT groups to better understand possible future training needs and help counselor educators create an educational curriculum that addresses group counseling knowledge and skills for online groups. There is currently a lack of information about how to train counseling students in the delivery of online counseling (Kozlowski & Holmes, 2014), and specifically group counseling (Kit et al., 2014).

Professional and Accreditation Bodies’ Guidance on Technology
     The American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics states, “Counselors understand that the profession of counseling may no longer be limited to in-person, face-to-face interactions” (2014, p. 17). The ASGW Best Practices Guidelines require that “Group workers are aware of and responsive to technological changes as they affect society and the profession” (ASGW, 2007, p. 115, A.9). Similarly, CACREP (2015) indicates “students are to understand the impact of technology on the counseling profession” (2.F.1.j) as well as “the impact of technology on the counseling process” (2.F.5.e). CACREP also emphasized that students understand “ethical and culturally relevant strategies for establishing and maintaining in-person and technology-assisted relationships” (2.F.5.d). Additionally, the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES; 2018) provides guidelines for online instruction featuring descriptions regarding course quality, content, instructional support, faculty qualifications, course evaluation procedures and expected technology standards.

Online Group Counseling
     Textbooks on group counseling have mainly approached EGCT in face-to-face formats (e.g., G. Corey, 2016; Yalom & Leszcz, 2005). Given the growing interest and demand for online counseling in recent years (Holmes & Kozlowski, 2015; Kozlowski & Holmes, 2017), COVID-19 has highlighted the need for greater awareness and understanding of online group counseling training. However, there is limited research on online group counseling and counseling students’ training in online group counseling.

Kozlowski and Holmes (2014) explored master’s-level counseling students’ experience in an online process group, reporting themes of participants’ experiences of a linear discussion, role confusion, and feelings of being disconnected, isolated, and unheard. In 2015, Holmes and Kozlowski expanded on their work with a study on master’s-level counseling students’ experiences in face-to-face and online group counseling training. They found that the online group participants felt significantly less comfortable than participants in the face-to-face group. Further, participants in the study evaluated face-to-face groups as preferable for participation, social cohesion, and security (Holmes & Kozlowski, 2015). Lopresti (2010) compared students’ group therapy experiences between face-to-face and online group counseling methods using synchronous text-based software. This research involved six master’s-level students engaging in an 8-week, 60-minute, weekly online group counseling session using the WebCT chat system. Results indicated that in the online format, some participants reported self-disclosure more easily, but they also shared that it was easy to hide behind the screen and to censor themselves.

Effectiveness of Online Group Counseling
     Some researchers have observed the efficacy of online support groups (Darcy & Dooley, 2007; Freeman et al., 2008; Lieberman et al., 2010; Webb et al., 2008). Haberstroh and Moyer (2012) reported that professionally moderated online support groups could supplement face-to-face counseling, especially for clients who want regular daily support during the process of recovering from self-injury. They also found that online group interaction provided clients with opportunities to engage in healthy self-expression and reduce their sense of loneliness and isolation (Haberstroh & Moyer, 2012). King et al. (2009) examined the effectiveness of internet-based group counseling to treat clients with methadone substance abuse, reporting that internet-based group counseling could reduce resistance and non-adherence in clients. Clients expressed satisfaction with the process and reported convenience and higher levels of trust in confidentiality because they were able to participate from home.

Similarly, Gilkey et al. (2009) reported the advantages and disadvantages of synchronous videoconferencing (SVC) web-based interventions. This study involved families with children with traumatic brain injury. The results revealed that SVC had the potential for family-based therapy delivery. However, it required important factors such as client readiness to address their issues and patience with the technology’s imperfections. SVC could reduce barriers to treatment with motivated families from diverse backgrounds. Nevertheless, the online group experience is vulnerable to the impact of technology glitches, privacy issues, disruptions in connectivity, and personal detachment (Amulya, 2020). In online group therapy, Weinberg (2020) identified four obstacles: managing the frame of the treatment, the disembodied environment, the question of presence, and the transparent background.

Purpose of Study and Research Questions
     In March 2020, as a result of the pandemic, our university moved most face-to-face classes to virtual environments following statewide restrictions for in-person gatherings. This sudden change led to a unique experience for first-year master’s-level counseling students enrolled in an introductory group counseling course at a CACREP-accredited program in the Midwest. It was planned that students would participate in 10 face-to-face EGCT groups of 90 minutes each to fulfill the CACREP (2015) group counseling experiential training requirements. Doctoral students facilitated the first five group counseling experiences for the counselors-in-training. The plan was for two master’s students to lead face-to-face groups under the supervision of doctoral students for the remaining five groups (6–10). However, the university closed for 2 weeks after Session 6 was completed. As a result, when classes resumed, they were online. EGCT Sessions 7 through 10 were conducted online using Microsoft Teams with master’s students leading and doctoral students supervising. Thus, in a single semester, the master’s students had the experience of participating in and leading both face-to-face and online groups. Our study was guided by the following research question: What were master students’ experiences of participating and leading in both face-to-face and online EGCT groups?


Research Design
     Qualitative methodology was used to explore first-year master’s students’ experiences of participating and leading in both face-to-face and online formats of EGCT. Our aim was to build an understanding of their experience shifting to an online modality with a specific interest in their attitudes, learning, facilitating, and adaptation to these two environments. For this purpose, a phenomenological approach was appropriate for investigating students’ unique experiences in both versions of the EGCT groups. Moustakas (1994) defined phenomenology as an approach for “comprehending or having in-depth knowledge of a phenomenon or setting and . . . attained by first reflecting on one’s own experience” (p. 36). In a phenomenological study, the aim is to describe the essence of individuals’ experiences with a certain phenomenon (Creswell & Creswell, 2018).

Participants and Procedures
     IRB approval was obtained, and purposive sampling was implemented with a recruitment email. All participants were recruited from a CACREP-accredited counseling program in the Midwest  United States. Our inclusion criteria were that participants must be current master’s-level counseling students and must be enrolled in a group counseling course. In addition, each participant must have experienced both participating in and leading at least one EGCT session during the prior term.

The invitation to participate in a focus group was emailed to all students enrolled in the group counseling course in the prior term. It included information about the study, addressed voluntary participation, and explained the entirely separate nature of participation in the focus group from evaluation of performance in the group class that had concluded. This recruitment email was sent out a total of three times within a 3-week period before the study was conducted.

Nine students agreed to participate in the study, and written consent forms were sent to them via email to read and review. Of the nine participants, three self-identified as male and six self-identified as female. Seven participants identified as White and two identified as “other,” and the age range was 18–34 years old. Two participants were specializing in school counseling, three in clinical mental health counseling, three in clinical mental health/clinical rehabilitation counseling, and one in clinical mental health/school counseling.

Before the focus group, prospective participants were emailed a copy of the semi-structured interview questions to alleviate any anxiety or concerns about the questions that would be asked during the study. Prospective participants were also invited to ask any questions at the start of the focus group and were then invited to provide verbal consent. To secure confidentiality, participants were assigned a code consisting of letters and numbers to protect their identity. Participants’ identification codes, with corresponding names, were kept securely in the possession of the first author, Bilal Urkmez.

Focus Groups
     Focus groups were used because they allow students to share their experiences with EGCT groups and compare points of view (Krueger & Casey, 2014). Two online focus groups were held—one with five participants (one male, four females) and one with four participants (two males, two females). Participants received invitation links from the focus group facilitator via Microsoft Teams. All participants were familiar with Microsoft Teams because they had used it for their experiential groups and classes after moving to online instruction. Urkmez contacted the university’s IT department regarding the protocol of recording and securing the video and audio of the focus groups on Microsoft Teams.

Our fifth and sixth authors, Jennifer Ojiambo Isiko and Brandon Tomlinson, who led and supervised the original EGCT groups, conducted the focus groups. Care was taken to ensure that master’s students were not placed in a focus group led by the same doctoral student who had previously led and supervised their 10-session EGCT groups.

We used Krueger and Casey’s (2014) guidelines to create a semi-structured focus group protocol. Open-ended questions were built in for the focus group leaders to use as prompts to facilitate discussion when necessary. The online focus groups lasted approximately 60 minutes. All the conversations were recorded and then transcribed verbatim by the designated focus group facilitator.

Authors’ Characteristics and Reflectivity
     Our research team consisted of two counselor educators with experience teaching and facilitating group counseling courses and five counselor education doctoral students. All doctoral students were part of a single cohort, and all had prior experiences facilitating group counseling. The counselor educators were Urkmez, who self-identifies as a White male, and Christine Suniti Bhat, an Asian female. The doctoral students were Chanda Pinkney, an African American female; Daniel Bonnah Amparbeng, an African male; Nanang Gunawan, an Asian male; Isiko, an African female; and Tomlinson, a White male. Before data collection, we met to discuss focus group questions, explore biases and assumptions, and assign focus group leaders for the study.

Our team used multiple strategies to establish trustworthiness. As two of the researchers taught group counseling and five of the researchers had led and supervised the EGCT groups, it was necessary to discuss possible biases before and during the data analysis process to ensure that the resulting themes and subthemes emerged from participants’ responses (Bowen, 2008).

First, some of the researchers shared that they believe face-to-face group counseling is better than online group counseling because they do not personally like to take or teach online courses in their education. All research members taught, learned, and supervised EGCTs predominantly in face-to-face environments prior to the study and pandemic. Secondly, some of the researchers also mentioned their frustrations with learning and supervising online. These discussions were held to promote awareness of potential biases so as to avoid focusing on the negative experiences of the master’s students. Bracketing was implemented throughout the study to reduce researchers’ possible influence on participants of favoring face-to-face counseling environments (Chan et al., 2013). This measure helped ensure the validity of the study’s data collection and analysis by having the researchers put aside any negative experiences of online learning environments during the pandemic (Chan et al., 2013). Urkmez, Pinkney, Bonnah Amparbeng, Gunawan, Isiko, and Tomlinson analyzed the data first, fulfilling investigator triangulation (Patton, 2015). This same group then met several times to discuss their analyses of the transcripts and agree upon the significant statements and themes.

Experiential Group Counseling Training
     Twenty-eight first-year master’s students were enrolled in an introductory group counseling course in the spring 2020 academic semester. The EGCT groups were a required adjunct to the didactic portion of the course. EGCT sessions for the master’s students met weekly for 90 minutes and were set up so that the master’s students were participants for Sessions 1 through 5 (led by doctoral students) and were leaders for Sessions 6 through 10 (supervised by doctoral students). All 10 sessions were planned to be face-to-face sessions. Doctoral students were enrolled in an advanced group counseling course, and their participation was a required component of the course.

During the first five sessions, doctoral students’ responsibilities as leaders included facilitating meaningful interaction among the participants, promoting member–member learning, and encouraging participants to translate insights generated during the interaction into practical actions outside the group (G. Corey, 2016). For Sessions 6–10, in the role of supervisors, doctoral students’ responsibilities were to mentor and monitor the master’s students’ group leadership skills and provide verbal feedback immediately after the session. Doctoral students also provided written feedback to both the master’s students and group counseling course instructors. Additionally, the doctoral students engaged in peer supervision with each other under the tutelage of the advanced group counseling course instructor, discussing how EGCT could be supervised more effectively.

As stated previously, two master’s students started to co-lead the EGCT groups during Session 6, which was conducted face-to-face. After Session 6, in-person classes were canceled by the university in response to COVID-19, so the remaining four sessions of EGCT were conducted online on Microsoft Teams. The online groups were conducted synchronously on the same day and time as the face-to-face groups had been conducted in the earlier part of the semester.

Session 7 was the first synchronous online session of the EGCT and deserves special mention. Prior to Session 7, the doctoral students received brief training on Microsoft Teams. The master’s students had no previous exposure to Microsoft Teams. Thus, during Session 7, the doctoral students provided support by demonstrating how Microsoft Teams worked and processing the master’s students’ thoughts, feelings, and levels of wellness in relation to the sudden pandemic. Students resumed leading the online synchronous groups for Sessions 8, 9, and 10 under doctoral students’ supervision.

Data Analysis
     Isiko and Tomlinson led the two focus groups and transcribed the data collected from the participants who shared their experiences in the focus groups. We utilized the phenomenological data analysis method described by Moustakas (1994). Urkmez, Pinkney, Bonnah Amparbeng, Gunawan, Isiko, and Tomlinson conducted the data analysis while Bhat served as a peer debriefer because of her position of seniority in terms of expertise in not only qualitative methodology, but also group counseling research, as well as her experience of more than 15 years in teaching both master’s- and doctoral-level group counseling courses at the CACREP-accredited program. Her primary role was to read the transcripts, review the raw data and analysis, and scrutinize established themes to point out discrepancies (Creswell & Creswell, 2018).

Our research team (except for Bhat) met to discuss our potential biases and bracket our assumptions about the phenomenon under investigation. Then, each of us independently read all transcripts multiple times to become familiar with the data. Next, we reviewed the transcripts according to the horizontalization phase of analysis (Moustakas, 1994). Moustakas defined the horizontalization phase as the part of the analysis “in which specific statements are identified in the transcripts that provide information about the experiences of the participants” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 28). During this step, we independently reviewed each transcript and identified significant statements that reflected the participants’ interpretations of their experiences with the phenomenon. We identified these significant statements based on the number of times they were mentioned both within and across participants. From this point, we each independently created a list of significant statements.

Subsequently, we met to review our lists to establish coder consistency, create initial titles for the themes, and place data into thematic clusters (Moustakas, 1994). Each of our themes and related subthemes were similar in content and typically varied only in the titles used. Titles for themes and subthemes were discussed until consensus was obtained. We revisited the horizontalized statements and discussed our different perspectives. Next, we evaluated the most commonly occurring themes and created a composite summary of each theme from the participants’ experiences. After these steps, we arrived at a consensus about each theme’s essential meaning and decided on specific participant quotes that represented each theme.


We identified three main themes related to the participants’ experiences of taking part in and leading both face-to-face and online EGCT. The three main themes were positive participation attributes, participation-inhibiting attributes, and suggestions for group counseling training.

Positive Participation Attributes
     The central theme of positive participation attributes focused on exploring master’s students’ perceptions about what helped them actively participate in both online and face-to-face EGCT groups as a group member. Five subthemes were identified in the main theme of positive participation attributes: (a) knowing other group members, (b) physical presence, (c) comfortability of online sessions, (d) cohesiveness, and (e) leadership interventions.

Knowing Other Group Members
     The EGCT group involved graduate-level counseling students who knew each other for a semester before engaging in the EGCT. Study participants shared that seeing familiar faces provided a safe and supportive environment for them to participate in both face-to-face and online group sessions as a group member. One participant noted that “a part of it helped because it was many people I had already known,” and another participant stated that “it was easier to have face-to-face after we had already kind of met everybody in the semester and so I wasn’t worried about confidentiality. I wasn’t in this group with a whole bunch of strangers.” Participants noted that knowing other group members helped them to participate actively in EGCT. They reported that having familiar faces in the group made them feel comfortable and connected, and that it helped them engage more fully during the ECGT groups.

Physical Presence
     Study participants shared that group members’ physical presence during the face-to-face sessions enhanced their willingness to participate. The physical presence provided access and a better ability to understand group members’ content and emotion through their body language, eye contact, vocal tone, and other nonverbal cues during sessions. As one participant shared, “I feel so much more in touch and present with people when I can see them, but just kind of feel their physical presence rather than just watching the faces online.” Furthermore, the study participants shared that being physically present during the face-to-face sessions allowed for the incorporation of more icebreaker activities by both doctoral and master’s student group leaders, enhancing their participation in groups. One participant noted that “the small icebreakers, I just remember doing those at the beginning during our face-to-face sessions; those were a lot of fun.”

Comfortability of Online Sessions
     Participants reported that they felt comfortable engaging in online EGCT from their familiar surroundings at home. They appreciated the convenience of participating in ECGT groups from wherever they were. One participant reported that “people could be outside or eating or drinking or whatever, which I think is cool.” Another participant shared that before the state-issued quarantine, they already used online technology to communicate with friends, so it was easy to use Microsoft Teams for online experiential training groups. Another participant noted:

We were doing them (EGCT) from the comfort of our own home; it just increased how comfortable you were in general. We were all at home, rocking in sweatpants and not having to worry about stuff. I feel we were in our own comfortable, safe space, and that made the online easier for me.

     Participants reported they felt “anxious,” “lonely,” and “isolated” and experienced other difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic. They noted that they actively engaged in online EGCT sessions because it provided them with the opportunity to connect, share, and process their thoughts and emotions. A group participant reported, “We all had to isolate. [It] made it exciting to be able to connect with everyone again, to talk about how it (COVID-19) was affecting us, to vent out our emotions and check in with others.” Additionally, another participant reported:

When we started these sessions [online], it was at the beginning of these COVID-19 issues, and I was feeling more stressful, and there was nothing to do. It was so difficult to adjust to this environment, even staying at home. This was like an opportunity for me to connect with classmates in the group and [it] helped me to reflect on my anxiety and how other people were thinking around these COVID-19 issues.

     As a result of the online EGCT groups, participants gained a means of personal interaction during isolation. The subthemes presented above capture the positive participation factors that helped participants to engage actively in both online and face-to-face sessions.

Leadership Interventions
     Participants shared leadership interventions that helped them to participate during face-to-face and online sessions. The sudden transition to online groups due to COVID-19 was characterized by trial and error and uncertainty for everyone. Participants noted that while working with the new online EGCT group and different processes than what they experienced before COVID-19, doctoral students and master’s student leaders demonstrated a sense of flexibility and adaptability to the prevailing situation and could steer the groups in the changing environment. Both the doctoral and master’s student leaders were aware of the effect of COVID-19 on the participants, and they allowed the participants to get support from each other before they could get into the session plan for the group. One participant mentioned that “we kind of partly used that [the group] as a social support group . . . and reflect on how we’re feeling during social isolation.” Another participant shared that “the facilitators were flexible. So, even if they had a topic or something like that, they would allow for flexibility, to check in [with participants], and be able to kind of shift focus to what we all needed.”

Participants explicitly mentioned that the doctoral and master’s students’ leadership interventions, such as encouraging, checking in, and being present, helped them engage in the EGCT groups. Participants highlighted the strength of the group leaders’ encouragement of reflection (“I appreciated that the leader really put emphasis on encouraging us to answer questions”) and overall presence and attention (“[The leader] was attending our behavior and was really good with reflecting”). The participants also found the aspect of “checking in” by the leaders as something that enhanced their participation: “The leaders were always pretty quick to check in on someone if something seemed off.”

Group leaders’ ability to coordinate and successfully facilitate group sessions can significantly influence group outcomes (G. Corey, 2016; Gladding, 2012). Study participants shared that group facilitators demonstrated leadership skills and techniques to facilitate meaningful discussions and participation among members in both face-to-face and online sessions: “Like she [group leader] was always there to answer questions if there is silence; like she didn’t want us to rely on her to do the entire conversation, so her encouragement was beneficial for me.”

Participation-Inhibiting Attributes
     For this main theme, we examined attributes that negatively influenced participation and leading in the online and face-to-face formats of the EGCT groups. Three subthemes were identified: (a) group dynamics, (b) challenges with online EGCT, and (c) technological obstacles for online EGCT. The most prominent subtheme that arose and spread across both group formats was that of the group dynamic. Friction within the group dynamic was one of the primary issues reported by participants. The remaining subthemes were related to challenges with online EGCT groups. These challenges include the importance of “being with” or physically present with the rest of the group, problems with missing nonverbal communication in the online meetings, difficulties navigating awkward silences and pauses in the group, and technical obstacles.

Group Dynamics
     Study participants shared that the group dynamics dictated how much of a connection developed among group members and significantly influenced the progression to the working phase in the groups. In the words of one participant, “I feel like that was definitely something with our group dynamic. . . . There was definitely still good conversations, but I think that impacted it.”

Some participants reported their initial concerns about fostering rapport with group mates chosen randomly for them. Participants expressed thoughts that personalities did not mesh well in their group and that there were issues of building good rapport. Some participants indicated that having a reserved personality made it hard to participate: “For me, it was more about a personal thing because I am an introverted personality, so I find it difficult to talk in groups anyway, so that’s what hindered my participation sometimes.” Another participant stated: “I felt like the others protect themselves by not talking, so why should I open myself and put myself into risk? I thought about that.”

Challenges With Online EGCT
     Participants in this study emphasized that one of the main difficulties of the online EGCT experience that affected their participation and leadership negatively was missing body language and physical cues. Participants shared that they could use nonverbal cues and body language to know when it was a good time to speak without interrupting other group members during the face-to-face ECGT. Because these were missing in online EGCT, the students did not have immediate awareness to participate in group conversation without interrupting other group members. For example, one participant noted the difficulties of “just not being able to read body language as well and not being able to see everyone at once.” As a result of these online environment limitations, study participants indicated they had a sense of “stepping on toes” while trying to participate in online EGCT: “I think that one of the biggest challenges with doing it [EGCT] online is that you want to be respectful and make sure that you are not gonna talk over somebody else.”

Kozlowski and Holmes (2014) previously noted that the unfamiliar environment of online counseling, the time delay because of technology, and the inability to utilize group members’ body language can all create a one-dimensional or “linear” experience in online group counseling environments. These factors appeared to hinder the natural growth and development of the EGCT groups in our study as well. In an effort to reduce the perception of being rude, there were times of awkward silence as participants avoided constant interruptions during the sessions; this difficulty gave the feeling of a linear environment.

One other factor the participants noted in the online format more so than the in-person group was what students described as an awkward silence. This occurrence serves as a subtheme of missed physical cues because the participants noted that the lack of said cues complicated determining when to speak and when to wait: “Online, the silence almost felt like it was much longer than what it really would have been if it was face-to-face.” Another participant stated that they “feel pretty comfortable with silences, but it’s a lot harder to gauge that when it’s online.” This issue presented itself in several circumstances, though one group did attempt to figure out a solution, per the report of one participant: “For our group . . . to help with people talking over each other, we had people type in a smiley face in the chat when they wanted to share.”

Notably, participants in this study also mentioned that there was some physical presence that they could not describe but found to be relevant to them in their connection with the group. Although students were unable to identify it precisely, several study participants agreed on its importance. One participant said that they “enjoy the voice and the video, but I feel like when we are talking, especially in a group dynamic and group processes, especially to grasp something important, I really need to be with this person in a physical space.”

The participants emphasized the importance of physical presence, from the ability to see and greet one another to having space to do activities that got them up and moving. Many participants mentioned some intangible quality they could not name but that was missing when the groups convened electronically instead of in person. A participant shared that “you can observe the body language—what is happening in the group actually, but in online sessions, it’s like you don’t know, you are just talking.”

As noted in other sections, the group members appreciated the space for doing activities together when they were in person. Master’s student group leaders reported that they felt anxious when facilitating icebreaker activities in their online EGCT sessions because of the missing physical presence and noted the loss of face-to-face icebreakers. Study participants lamented that the online format did not allow for these bonding and icebreaking exercises, which when utilized in the usual face-to face format tended to put them in a position to feel better equipped to share with their group members, almost like a metaphorical entryway to the group process: “Some of the exercises are not possible to execute [online] because we were doing some physical things in our group, like throwing balls to each other and stuff.” Without these social warm-ups, the group flow and process suffered; according to those in the focus group, leaders needed more assistance to run activities in online EGCT sessions. One participant added a similar sentiment: “How do we lead a group online with proximity activities or icebreakers we would use? We can’t really do [that] because of the virtual interaction, [it] can’t work.”

Overall, the online EGCT environment limited the interpersonal relationships of the EGCT members and group leaders. Group members could not use their nonverbal communication skills or participate in physical group activities. Lastly, online EGCT appears to provide added pressure on group leaders to keep members engaged during the session. Master’s students had to choose topics where all members felt comfortable enough to participate with minimal encouragement, which was a challenge.

Technological Obstacles for Online EGCT
     Participants reported some technological difficulties that inhibited their ability to participate and lead the online EGCT sessions. Some participants noted that when participants turned off their cameras, it exacerbated disengagement levels within the group and hampered group dynamics. Some speculated that technical difficulties might be an excuse to disengage from the group: “Like in online, I can be mute, I can turn off my camera, I can not talk, and I can accuse the technology for that.” This capacity to disengage negatively impacted the group for several of the focus group participants, who noted that they felt this closed off the group and circumvented the ability to engage with all members of the group.

The limitations of the university-sanctioned online platform used for the EGCT groups, Microsoft Teams, adversely affected engagement during the online sessions as it only allowed four members (at the time of the online EGCT sessions) to be seen on the screen at a time. As one participant stated, “I cannot see all the group members . . . my attention is not with all members. This was difficult. It was difficult to lead the group.” Several group members were vociferous in their dislike for this limitation of the platform. Further, internet connectivity issues were problematic: “Sometimes like a group member would disconnect [because of technology problems], and there would be several minutes before they could come back.” These types of interruptions were frustrating to all group members and group leaders. Master’s student group leaders had a difficult time leading with interruptions.

One focus group participant noted, and others agreed, that it was challenging to learn how to lead a group online because they were missing so many elements of the in-person process of leading a group, and they did not have previous group leadership experience in an online environment. A participant shared that “it’s hard [leading group online]. It’s maybe harder for leaders because they cannot observe what’s going on . . . like body language.” 

Suggestions for Group Counseling Training
     Participants were invited to share their concerns and ways to develop and improve face-to-face and online EGCT group experiences. Three subthemes were identified: (a) software issues and training, (b) identified group topics, and (c) preferred EGCT environment.

Software Issues and Training
     Participants shared common concerns about the software for their online experiential training groups. Specifically, they found Microsoft Teams’ display of only four people at one time prevented them from seeing all group members on the screen. Members who were not speaking were displayed at the bottom of the computer screen with their profile picture or initials, which was not conducive to interaction. One participant suggested that they should “probably just use Zoom instead . . . I like Zoom better, seriously, because I can see absolutely everyone.” Another participant agreed, “But for the reason, at least, in Zoom, I can see everyone’s faces, not, um, not just four.”

Another participant similarly emphasized the importance of seeing everyone on one screen during their meeting: “If you don’t see the faces [at one time], you’re just clueless. I mean, have to, like, awkwardly check in with this person all the time.” Participants also brought another suggestion about training on leading online experiential training groups. Participants shared their anxiety about leading groups using online software because it is a new and unique experience. Because of the sudden onset of COVID-19, the students did not have a chance to get training on how to lead online experiential training groups. A participant mentioned that having training where students could learn how to facilitate online groups before leading weekly sessions would help alleviate anxiety and build competence: “Perhaps allowing a small period where everyone kind of gets adjusted to it and becomes more familiar with it might help facilitate [online] group sessions better.”

Identified Group Topics
     Another suggestion by participants regarding their EGCT experience was using one selected topic for each group. For example, a participant shared: “I think part of what was hard about this that might be something to change is, like having the group just be all over the place in terms of topics from week to week.” Another participant added: “If the group was more, like, a little bit more specific and clearer about like, the goal, or something like that, that might be—might help it flow a little bit better.” Some participants also suggested allowing students to select which group they wanted to attend, instead of having groups pre-assigned to them. In other words, participants preferred to join a specific group based on their interests. A participant mentioned: “I think that would be like a really good option to give like a list of ten types of groups or topics in the groups.” Another participant similarly suggested “giving an opportunity to all students to choose one group. For example, like the one group would work specifically on self-esteem problems or the other one would work on grief problems.”

Some participants noted that they felt there was a lack of purpose for the group, indicating that they were not sure of the group’s goals or objectives and that this hindered their ability to participate fully. Some also shared having confusion about their role and the boundaries of the group and what they could or could not share. One participant noted: “In the first session when we were trying to set up our goals, it was difficult for us to find what the goals will be as a group leader candidate, or as a person.” The focus group participants suggested giving more concrete topics overall for the EGCT group to understand better how to participate. This notion spanned across the online and face-to-face format as a more general recommendation.

Preferred Training Environment
     Lastly, participants were asked about their preference for participation in a face-to-face or online EGCT experience, if given a choice. Even though participants reported a reasonably good experience with online EGCT groups, such as comfortability and cohesiveness, most of the participants voiced a preference for face-to-face sessions if they had to do the group counseling training over again. One participant stated: “Ultimately, face-to-face will probably still be better.” Another participant added: “Face-to-face for sure. I just think as like a profession, we all enjoy working with people. We would prefer to work with someone in person.” Similarly, another participant mentioned: “I would definitely choose face-to-face, but I was thankful that we had the opportunity to do it online.”

Asking the participants about their preferred experiential training group environment garnered the most reaction during the interviews. Most of the participants shared that they preferred face-to-face groups. Even though participants had personal connections in an online setting, they wanted to have face-to-face meetings to interact better. One participant mentioned that “we are doing online sessions right now. I wish that I [could] continue to do the group lab and connect with the group members, but if I have the opportunity to take face-to-face, absolutely, I would do that.” Lastly, another participant added: “Absolutely, it’s face-to-face, but if we are in a situation like this, COVID-19 issues, sometimes the online sessions can be helpful.”

Participants offered their perspectives on learning group counseling skills during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the unprecedented circumstances, the students persevered and completed the course. Group leaders and professors encouraged the group members to participate to the best of their abilities. The concerns and suggestions shared in these focus groups could help counselor educators plan and develop for EGCT in both online and face-to-face formats.


This study investigated the experiences of master’s students in an online and face-to-face EGCT group. EGCT is an essential aspect of novice counselors’ preparation and is required by CACREP (2015) standards. In this study, participants identified positive factors related to their EGCT group participation, such as knowing other group members, group leadership skills, physical presence, and connection with other group members. They also reported participation-inhibiting factors such as the complexities of group dynamics, missing physical cues, and technological challenges. Our research findings are similar to Kozlowski and Holmes’s (2014) study on online group counseling training. Their participants reported problems with the group feeling artificial, lacking attending skills, and difficulties with achieving cohesion and connectedness.

In the current study, course instructors and student leaders did not have control over the choice of an online platform. The limitations of Microsoft Teams, which at the time of the online EGCT sessions only allowed four participants to be visible on the screen at one time, added to difficulties with engaging and feeling connected. For participants to remain engaged, leaders and instructors should have access to online platforms that allow students to see all group members simultaneously on the screen. Setting ground rules requiring that cameras remain on during sessions and utilizing the chat feature or the hand-raising feature to facilitate discussions would also help create and maintain a sense of connection. Outlining contingency plans such as the alternatives for not being able to join the group with the camera on are important for successful group outcomes.

Participants in this study appreciated the convenience of participating in online ECGT groups. This is similar to the findings of King et al. (2009) about the convenience of access to online group counseling. In the same study by King et al. (2009), the participants shared that online counseling sessions allowed them to participate from the comfort of their homes, thus improving both convenience and privacy. One of the difficulties participants reported was that of awkward silence. This experience, coupled with interruptions (“stepping on toes”), resulted in students finding that the experience online was more linear and less organic compared to face-to-face interactions. These findings are similar to those of Kozlowski and Holmes (2014). Yalom and Leszcz (2005) noted that the group leader’s role is to design the group’s path, get it going, and keep it functional to achieve effectiveness. Presence, self-confidence, the courage to take risks, belief in the group process, inventiveness, and creativity are essential leadership traits in leading groups (G. Corey, 2016). However, these traits are for in-person groups. It is possible that effectively leading online groups requires other skills that have not yet been identified. The sudden change to online training in this instance did not allow for a planful design. It is necessary for group leaders to possess specific group leadership skills and appropriately perform them to help group members participate in groups (M. S. Corey et al., 2018). However, participants appreciated that the doctoral and master’s student leaders demonstrated flexibility, allowing for additional time to check in with group members and process their experiences and emotions related to the pandemic.

One interesting finding related to how COVID-19 impacted participants’ experiences in the ECGT groups was that group participants actively engaged in the online sessions when they were allowed to process their anxiety and stress due to COVID-19, as it served as a support group. This result is dissimilar to findings of previous studies in which participants felt unsafe during online group sessions and being on online platforms impeded participants’ emotional connection and trust levels (Fletcher-Tomenius & Vossler, 2009; Haberstroh et al., 2007; Kozlowski & Holmes, 2014).

Bellafiore et al. (2003) emphasized online group leaders’ roles as “shaping the group” and “setting the tone.” They also expressed that “establishing and maintaining a leadership style is important in keeping the group going” (p. 211). In the current study, first-year master’s students, many of whom were participating in or leading groups for the first time, had the unexpected and sudden additional layer of learning how to lead online. Further, the abrupt transition from face-to-face to online groups because of COVID-19 did not allow for extensive instructor planning and preparation. Leading groups online was challenging and anxiety-provoking for members, as they lacked experience and were unsure how to proceed. Master’s students need additional training on facilitating online groups, establishing a leadership style, and managing silence. This information corresponds with Cárdenas et al.’s (2008) findings that master’s-level counseling students felt more confident to provide online counseling services after training.


Although the findings from this study are not generalizable, there may be implications for designing and leading EGCT groups that merit consideration based on the experience of the counselor trainees described in this study. Part of the group design entailed assigning different topics to focus on for each session. The rationale for having different topics for each session should be clearly explained to the participants. Any questions regarding the identified topics should be addressed early to enhance the group facilitation process for both leaders and participants. Additionally, group leaders or course instructors need to explain roles clearly, and group members should understand the group’s boundaries and how they fit with their didactic course.

With online EGCT groups, it is essential to consider how participation is influenced by a lack of natural communication signals, such as body language and physical presence. Counselor educators and EGCT student leaders need to establish ground rules about online group interactions such as having all cameras remain on during sessions, having a private and quiet space from which to participate, and minimizing distractions from pets or relatives, all of which are necessary for successful groups. Further, utilizing technology that allows all members to be seen on the screen may help build connection and cohesiveness. Utilizing methods such as using the chat to insert a symbol or using the hand-raising icon can also help facilitate participation.

Overall, students reported feeling unprepared to lead online counseling groups. However, as counselor educators, we are responsible for preparing our students to engage in online counseling successfully, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues into its second year and will continue to affect how much virtual counseling will take place in the future. The recent normalization of online counseling (individual and group) may persuade educators and counselors to “increase their skills in terms of development, comfortability, and flexibility in the online environment” (International OCD Foundation, 2020, p. 1). Therefore, counselor educators should cover online-specific facilitation skills in their training programs.

Limitations and Future Research Directions

This study was the first step in attempting to understand and describe master’s-level students’ experiences of participating and leading in both face-to-face and online formats of EGCT. As with all research, limitations should be considered in interpreting the findings. Further, some of the limitations point to potential research directions.

COVID-19 created a situation where the transition from face-to-face to online formats was compulsory. It is therefore not clear what the experience would have been like if the transition was planned and did not have a situation like COVID-19 in the background pushing the transition, or if the group had been entirely online. Because of unplanned adjustment, course instructors and student leaders did not have control over the choice of an online platform. Outlining contingency plans, such as alternatives when a group member cannot join the group with their camera on, are essential for successful group outcomes, and a lack of familiarity with online platforms may have prevented instructors and student leaders from providing these contingencies and therefore impacted the experience for students.

Further, the EGCT groups were conducted with master’s-level students, and participants already had preexisting relationships with each other. This may have contributed to their strong support of face-to-face groups over online groups. In future research, studies with participants who do not already know each other may help us assess the appeal of online groups to participants. Further, researchers in the future may wish to examine the efficacy of online group counseling training for counseling students compared to in-person group training by comparing two equivalent experiential groups.

The current study recruited master’s-level counseling students from a CACREP-accredited counseling program in the Midwest United States; thus, results cannot be generalized to other institutions. The sample size was small in the current study. Therefore, we caution against generalizing our findings. During the focus groups, participants shared some apprehension about how much information to disclose in group counseling, and they verbalized some confusion on group purpose, direction, or goals. For many, these EGCT groups were the students’ first experience in group counseling training, and this could contribute to them questioning if their feelings and experiences were appropriate (Ohrt et al., 2014).

There are methodological considerations to improve future studies. Focus groups were conducted to collect the data from the participants. In-depth individual interviews would enhance a deeper conversation in understating and reflecting on the challenges and needs of master’s-level students. Participants may have censored some of their true feelings, as they were aware that their group leaders were also part of the research team, even though they did not run the focus groups. We acknowledge that the students knowing each other from previous classes may have influenced how much they shared in groups. Participants in this study expressed comfort with knowing each other from a previous semester. However, it is also possible that students may have disclosed minimal personal information so as not to effect public perception of themselves or effect future professional relationships.

Another area to expand on would be investigating counselors’ self-efficacy while facilitating online counseling groups. For example, exploring positive participation attributes that increase online groups’ participation from the leader’s perspective could be useful. This may allow researchers and practitioners to identify how group counseling can best be leveraged in an online environment.


The purpose of this study was to explore and compare first-year master’s-level counseling students’ experiences of participating and leading in both face-to-face and online formats of EGCT. In summary, students considered that the online format was challenging because it added a layer of learning to their fledgling group work skills beyond the face-to-face setting. Technological barriers that were outside the control of participants inhibited their participation, but on the other hand, the online groups served as a safe and supportive space for students to alleviate their stress and loneliness due to COVID-19. Regardless of the teaching environment, thoughtful and well-planned EGCT groups are essential for student development in this area, and skilled group leaders can manage group dynamics and model group counseling skills. COVID-19 has necessitated a focus on teletherapy and online counseling. The group counseling profession should be proactive in addressing this training need, as conducting online group counseling sessions is likely to continue to be a much-needed skill in a post-pandemic world.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.



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Bilal Urkmez, PhD, LPC, CRC, is an assistant professor at Ohio University. Chanda Pinkney, MA, CT, is a doctoral student at Ohio University. Daniel Bonnah Amparbeng, MEd, NCC, LPC, is a doctoral student at Ohio University. Nanang Gunawan, MA, is a doctoral student at Ohio University. Jennifer Ojiambo Isiko, MA, is a doctoral student at Ohio University. Brandon Tomlinson, MA, NCC, LPC, is a doctoral student at Ohio University. Christine Suniti Bhat, PhD, LPC, LSC, is a professor at Ohio University. Correspondence may be addressed to Bilal Urkmez, Patton Hall 432P, Athens, OH 45701, urkmezbi@ohio.edu.

“It’s Never Too Late”: High School Counselors’ Support of Underrepresented Students’ Interest in STEM

Autumn L. Cabell, Dana Brookover, Amber Livingston, Ila Cartwright


The purpose of this study was to contribute to the literature surrounding school counselors and their support of underrepresented high school students who are interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The influence of context on school counseling was also explored, in particular practicing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through this phenomenological study, nine high school counselors were individually interviewed, and four themes emerged. These themes were: (a) professional knowledge surrounding issues of diversity in STEM, (b) training related to the needs of underrepresented students in STEM, (c) active engagement in supporting underrepresented students’ STEM career interests, and (d) barriers related to supporting underrepresented students’ STEM interests. This article includes implications for (a) how school counselors can support underrepresented students’ STEM interests, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic; (b) how counselor educators can contribute to STEM-related research and training; and (c) how school administrators can support school counselors’ STEM initiatives. 

Keywords: STEM, school counseling, underrepresented students, high school, COVID-19


     The science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields in the United States comprise a large and growing sector of the economy (National Science and Technology Council [NSTC], 2018). Currently, there are more than 9 million people employed in STEM careers (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS], 2020). This is approximately 6% of the United States workforce (BLS, 2020). According to the BLS (2020), computer science, engineering, and physical science occupations; managerial and postsecondary teaching occupations related to those areas; and sales occupations requiring scientific knowledge at the postsecondary level are considered STEM occupations. STEM occupations require the knowledge and skills to solve problems, make sense of information, and gather and evaluate evidence to make decisions (U.S. Department of Education [U.S. ED], n.d.). In order to meet the demands of the evolving workforce and society, the United States needs students who are fluent in STEM fields and are pursuing careers in STEM (U.S. ED, n.d.).

The demand for professionals and employees with STEM skill sets is a national priority (NSTC, 2018). Estimates indicate that there will be a shortage of over 1 million STEM workers (Xue & Larson, 2015), and the need for workers will grow by 8% before 2030 (BLS, 2020). In contrast, non-STEM occupations are only projected to grow by 3% before 2030 (BLS, 2020). Because of the need for professionals with STEM skill sets, choosing to pursue a career in the STEM sector leads to the potential for positive job marketability. In addition, students who major in STEM programs during college may earn a higher salary upon graduation than other students (Cataldi et al., 2014; Vilorio, 2014). However, not all students have equitable opportunities to pursue careers in STEM.

The Need for Diversity in STEM
     Diversity in STEM continues to be a concern in the United States (National Science Foundation, 2019). Beginning in high school, fewer women and minorities expect to have a career in STEM at age 30 (Mau & Li, 2018). Then, in college, significantly more men than women declare STEM majors and significantly more Asian and White students declare STEM majors (Mau, 2016). Although women now make up over half of the overall workforce, they are underrepresented in certain STEM sectors, such as computer jobs and engineering (Funk & Parker, 2018). Relatedly, in 2015–2016, more bachelor’s degrees were awarded to females (58%) than males (42%), yet females only made up 36% of bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2019). Additionally, the gender wage gap is wider in the STEM fields than in non-STEM jobs (Funk & Parker, 2018).

Further, Black, Latinx, and Native American workers are underrepresented in STEM occupations when compared to White and Asian workers (Funk & Parker, 2018; Mau, 2016). Though racial minorities are gradually becoming more represented in STEM fields, there is still more work to be done. For example, in 2015–2016, White students were awarded approximately 90% of the bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields (NCES, 2019). The percentages of Latinx (15%), Black (12%), and Native American (14%) students who received degrees in STEM was disproportionately lower than that of White students.

These gender and racial disparities in STEM begin even before students enter college. High school is a critical timepoint to address gender and racial disparities in STEM. High school provides students with an opportunity to engage in higher-level STEM coursework and gain self-efficacy in their STEM skills and abilities. Chen (2013) suggested that when students do not have the opportunity to engage with higher-level coursework in STEM, they are less likely to complete college degrees in STEM. Further, Grossman and Porche (2014) explained that during the high school years, encouragement to pursue STEM coursework is critical to developing students’ STEM self-efficacy. Mau and Li (2018) found that ninth grade students with higher math and science self-efficacy were more likely to have STEM career expectations and aspirations.

However, girls and underrepresented minorities in K–12 are more likely to experience stereotype threat (i.e., anxiety about their performance or ability based on negative stereotypes) and less likely to be enrolled in advanced STEM coursework during high school (Curry & Shillingford, 2015; Hamilton et al., 2015). This results in gaps in advanced STEM skills and a lack of further interest in STEM careers. Thus, professional school counselors must address the inequities in opportunity for their students through targeted STEM career interventions. Often, high school is a student’s last opportunity to develop their interest in STEM careers (Falco & Summers, 2019; Schmidt et al., 2012; Shillingford et al., 2017).

School Counselors and STEM
     Under their role as defined by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) National Model (2012), professional school counselors play an integral part in utilizing career counseling to support and encourage students to pursue STEM education and careers (Schmidt et al., 2012). Falco (2017) provided a conceptual model for school counselors to guide their STEM academic and career support with their students, including: (a) encouraging students to take advanced math and science courses, (b) providing classroom instruction on the benefits of pursuing STEM education, and (c) improving self-efficacy through providing mentoring and small group counseling opportunities. Other suggested roles for professional school counselors in STEM counseling involve ensuring equitable gender and racial ethnic ratios in STEM classes, integrating STEM knowledge into goal setting, and involving parents and guardians in academic and career planning (Schmidt et al., 2012). Although the topic of STEM counseling within the school counseling profession is still emerging, school counselors and researchers have highlighted the importance of working with girls and underrepresented racial minorities regarding STEM pursuits (Falco & Summers, 2019; Shillingford et al., 2017).

School Counselors and STEM for Girls and Underrepresented Racial Minorities
     In order to provide equitable and anti-racist school counseling services, professional school counselors must be knowledgeable and aware of the factors perpetuating the opportunity gaps in STEM for girls and underrepresented minorities. Potential reasons for the opportunity gaps in STEM higher education include: (a) young people not being engaged in higher-level STEM coursework in high school, (b) inability to meet the financial or time commitment required by STEM programs, and (c) motivation and confidence concerns (Chen, 2013). Additionally, starting in adolescence, underrepresented students in the STEM fields also face a lack of support and encouragement and, oftentimes, direct discouragement from educators regarding enrollment in rigorous STEM coursework (Grossman & Porche, 2014).

Unfortunately, underrepresented students are less likely to expect their school counselors to share postsecondary information with them, and school counselors often miss opportunities to improve underrepresented students’ STEM outcomes (Dockery & McKelvey, 2013; Shillingford et al., 2017). Yet, emerging evidence shows that school counselors can impact STEM aspirations in students. For instance, one school counseling intervention that showed promising results in promoting STEM self-efficacy was a career group intervention with adolescent girls, half of whom identified as Latina (Falco & Summers, 2019). The school counseling intervention focused on targeting STEM self-efficacy and career decision self-efficacy. The results indicated that participants in the treatment group improved significantly on both outcomes and even increased those gains 3 months post-intervention when compared to the control group (Falco & Summers, 2019).

In another study, researchers aimed to investigate the influence that school counselors’ leadership had on STEM engagement, their collaboration between parents and students of color, and barriers that inhibited them from giving students more tools and resources to contribute to their success (Shillingford et al., 2017). The school counselors in the study aligned with a leadership style that integrated collaborative and motivational techniques and suggested other school counselors can utilize their leadership style to communicate more effectively with parents and support racially underrepresented students’ STEM aspirations (Shillingford et al., 2017). However, there are barriers surrounding these efforts, including inadequacy of education around STEM for school counselors; challenges with supporting parents, especially parents from marginalized racial identities; and having insufficient resources to benefit students (Shillingford et al., 2017). These studies show that school counselors can target STEM self-efficacy and emphasize school counselors’ roles in promoting STEM career aspirations with racially underrepresented students. However, the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic should be taken into consideration when surveying the current climate of STEM counseling with students.

COVID-19 and School Counselors
     The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the inequities within our education system (Aguilar, 2020). For example, there is a digital equity gap, which includes a lack of access to adequate technology or internet, which must be taken into consideration and addressed in the virtual and hybrid learning settings many school divisions have adopted (Aguilar, 2020). During the pandemic, students often come to their virtual learning environments disengaged and having experienced various traumas (Savitz-Romer et al., 2020). These considerations call for flexibility, empathy, and perseverance from educators, including school counselors.

School counselors are trained in promoting students’ social-emotional, academic, and postsecondary development and hence are key to supporting students’ readjustment, learning, and continued college and career readiness progress during this time (Savitz-Romer et al., 2020). The work of the school counselor has not halted, especially with the challenges inherent in transitioning to a new way of school counseling. These challenges during the pandemic have led to less time spent in their usual counseling about social-emotional issues, career development, or postsecondary plans; notably, 50% of school counselors reported they spent less time than usual on career planning, and 25% reported less time spent on college planning (Savitz-Romer et al., 2020). Still, school counselors are pushing forward and adapting their practices to continue their work, including STEM counseling (ASCA, 2021).

Purpose of the Current Study
     As reviewed, professional school counselors play a vital role in the development and motivation of students interested in STEM. Shillingford and colleagues (2017) called attention to the necessity of educating school counselors on how to support students of color interested in the STEM fields, as well as the influence of having a collaborative relationship between parents, students, and school counselors to assist with students’ STEM career development and exploration. Although Shillingford et al. emphasized the leadership role school counselors take in impacting the pipeline of students of color in STEM, their work (a) does not address the intersectionality of the race and gender disparities in STEM and (b) does not specifically address the critical, and perhaps last, opportunity for counseling intervention that can take place at the high school level.

Given the need for gender and racial diversity in STEM and the limited literature that emphasizes the role of school counselors in STEM counseling and education, the purpose of this transcendental phenomenological study was to increase understanding of the lived experiences of high school counselors who support girls’ and underrepresented minority students’ interests in STEM. As students begin to prepare for their next step in life, high school is the last chance school counselors have to intervene and influence students who have shown interest in STEM-related careers and minimize potential barriers that may come their way. Thus, the following research questions guided this inquiry: 1) What are the experiences of high school counselors who support girls’ and underrepresented minority students’ STEM interests and career aspirations? and 2) What contexts (including the COVID-19 pandemic) influence high school counselors’ support of girls’ and underrepresented minority students’ STEM interests and career aspirations?


     A transcendental phenomenological approach was used to develop understanding of the experiences of high school counselors who support underrepresented students’ STEM career interests and the contexts that influence their support. Transcendental phenomenology is a suitable design when the aim is to discover the essence, or the nature, of a phenomenon, experience, or concept (Moustakas, 1994). Our research team included four members. Our first author, Cabell, is a Black, cisgender female counselor educator. As the primary researcher, her role was to recruit and interview participants and to assist with coding. The research team also included two Black, cisgender female counselor education and supervision doctoral students, Livingston and Cartwright, and one White, cisgender female counselor education doctoral candidate, Brookover. Cabell, Brookover, and Cartwright hold master’s degrees in school counseling. Cabell and Brookover previously worked as high school counselors and Cartwright worked as an elementary school counselor at the time of the study. In addition, Cabell has professional experience providing career counseling to undergraduate engineering students. Livingston earned a master’s degree in college counseling and has professional experience working with diverse populations of college students.

     The recommended sample size for phenomenological qualitative research is 5–25; thus, participants were recruited with this range in mind (Creswell & Poth, 2017), using purposeful sampling. Criteria for inclusion were school counselors or school counselor interns who worked in a high school within the past 2 years. A total of nine school counselors participated in this study.

Participants were seven school counselors who worked in a high school at the time of the study, one school counselor who worked in a high school within the past 2 years, and one college counselor who worked in a high school at the time of the study. Participants were racially diverse with six identifying as Black, two identifying as White, and one identifying as Mexican American/Chicano. Regarding gender, seven identified as cisgender women and two identified as cisgender men. Participants’ ages ranged from 26 to 46. In addition, the sample included participants who worked in various states, including two each in California and Virginia; one each in Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, and Washington, D.C.; and one who worked in both Kansas and Missouri. Three participants stated that they worked at a Catholic private high school. As part of their role, all participants stated that they provided career counseling services to students on a weekly basis. Most participants (n = 5) explained that the high school where they worked was diverse with regard to students’ race and gender. Lastly, participants had 4–18 years of experience working as high school counselors. See Table 1 for participant pseudonyms and demographics.


Table 1

Participant Pseudonyms and Demographics

Pseudonym Gender Age Race State Years of Experience Role and Work Experience
Jane Female 38 Black MD 7 Counselor at a Catholic high school
Kate Female 40 Black CA 5 College counselor at a Catholic high school
Christy Female 26 Black D.C. 4 Counselor at a Catholic high school
Lauren Female 37 White KS/MO 7 Counselor who just switched from
high school to elementary school
Dawn Female 30 Black VA 4 Counselor at a public high school
Kelly Female 37 Black MI 13 Counselor at a public high school
Jo Male 46 Mexican American/Chicano CA 18 Counselor at a public high school
Tina Female 35 Black IN 4 Counselor at a public high school
Mark Male 38 White VA 6 Counselor at a public high school


Data Collection
     First, the study was approved by the university’s IRB. After approval, our first author, Cabell, sent recruitment flyers and emails to high school counselors using social media platforms (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn) and state and national school counseling listservs (e.g., ASCA SCENE). Volunteers who met the eligibility criteria were encouraged to email Cabell in order to schedule a virtual interview through Zoom. Volunteers confirmed via email that they were a school counselor or school counseling intern at a high school within the past 2 years. Then, volunteers were sent the informed consent form and information on how to schedule their interview. Once scheduled, participants were emailed a Zoom link and directions on how to start their interview. Each interview lasted approximately 30–45 minutes and was audio-recorded.

At the beginning of each semi-structured interview, participants were asked demographic questions. Cabell developed interview questions based on the literature regarding (a) school counselors’ involvement in STEM education, (b) the underrepresentation of girls and racial minorities (e.g., Black, Latinx, and Native American) in STEM, and (c) the impact of COVID-19 on school counseling and K–12 education. The interview included 11 questions (see Appendix for the full list). Example interview questions included: What is your understanding of the issues of diversity in STEM? What has been your experience in promoting STEM careers to underrepresented students? What barriers do you face in promoting STEM careers to underrepresented students? and How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your role in supporting underrepresented students’ STEM career aspirations and interests? Following each interview, the audio recordings were transcribed using a website (Rev.com) and checked for accuracy by both Cabell and the participants. Cabell reviewed the transcripts for accuracy and made any changes due to typographical errors. She then emailed the transcripts to participants to review and make any changes. Two participants identified typographical errors in their transcript and emailed Cabell with edits.

Data Analysis
     Data from the interview transcripts were analyzed. First, the raw data from the transcripts were examined to note significant quotes (i.e., horizontalization). Each transcript was reviewed individually by Cabell and Cartwright for exemplary quotes related to the research questions. Then, clusters of meaning were developed from these quotes and compiled into themes. These themes were used to develop descriptions of the participants’ experiences and explain how contextual factors influenced their support of underrepresented students’ STEM career interests and aspirations. 

Trustworthiness is critical to establishing the validity of qualitative research; thus, several measures were implemented (Maxwell, 2005). First, in order to set aside personal biases, experiences, and feelings regarding the purpose of the research, all members of our research team engaged in bracketing our own experiences (i.e., epoché) before beginning this research (Creswell & Poth, 2017; Moustakas, 1994). Bracketing was completed in the form of concept maps and journaling. We individually bracketed our potential biases and then discussed our process with the team. Potential biases that were discussed included: (a) the impact of our first author’s experience providing career counseling to engineering undergraduate students, (b) our race and gender, and (c) our prior school counseling experience with underrepresented minorities.

In addition, throughout each semi-structured interview, Cabell completed check-ins to ensure understanding of the participant’s experience and perspective. Also, after each interview was transcribed, participants were sent their transcripts for member checking. Any inaccuracies in the transcript were changed based on the participant’s responses. Only transcripts that were reviewed by the participant were analyzed. Next, Cabell and Cartwright independently coded each transcript. Then, we established group consensus for all themes and exemplary quotes. Lastly, after the codebook was developed with themes and participant quotes, we sent the codebook to two counseling graduate students, who served as external auditors after being trained by Cabell on qualitative research and auditing. They reviewed the codebook to identify any discrepancies and ensure the significant quotes, themes, and codes aligned.


We sought to (a) highlight the experiences of high school counselors who support the STEM interests of girls and underrepresented minority students and (b) identify the contexts that impact their ability to support these students, particularly taking into account the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, participants reflected on supporting girls; Black, Latinx, and Native American students; and those students at the intersections of both identities (e.g., Black girls, Latinx girls). We identified four themes in the analysis of the high school counselors’ experiences: 1) professional knowledge of issues of diversity in STEM; 2) training related to the needs of underrepresented students in STEM; 3) active engagement or taking an active role in supporting underrepresented students’ STEM career interests; and 4) barriers related to supporting underrepresented students’ STEM interests, including COVID-19, school, administration, students’ self-efficacy, and language.

Theme 1: Professional Knowledge
     The first theme of professional knowledge of issues of diversity in STEM encompassed participants’ knowledge of the issues of gender and racial disparities in STEM fields nationally (i.e., representation in STEM occupations) and issues of diversity in STEM at their school (i.e., STEM courses). All participants were aware of the lack of racial and gender diversity in STEM nationally. Jane explained:

People of color, especially Black students, people who identify as female or women are vastly underrepresented in many of the STEM fields. . . . I know that there are many initiatives in K–12 [and] higher education to bring in or recruit or encourage students of color in particular and female students of color to explore STEM.

Similarly, Kate discussed that the STEM fields overall are “moving in a more diverse direction” yet are still dominated by men. She noticed that the majority of the students at her high school who are interested in STEM “are not Black or Brown students, they’re usually everything else.” According to Christy, “there’s a huge gap with our minorities. They don’t have the access to the education of the different jobs in STEM, and how to even reach those positions. . . . It ends up being a cyclical effect.”

Further, Dawn reflected on the lack of representation in STEM fields and the initiatives that she knows aim to diversify the images of STEM professionals. For example, Dawn discussed a social media campaign and stated:

There’s been a cool campaign, like what a scientist looks like. And it’s all of these cool Black women in lab coats. . . . So I’m pretty sure it’s just fighting against stereotypes of who should be in STEM, and what kind of person.

Kelly also spoke to the lack of diversity in STEM, not only as a national issue but also in her high school. Kelly mentioned the STEM opportunity gap: “If students are in STEM programs and they are of color, they don’t really see a lot of support, and they definitely don’t see teachers and staff that look like them.” Likewise, Jo explained that girls in particular “sometimes doubt their ability even though they’re within our top 5% of our school.” Tina acknowledged that there is a need for more girls in STEM and girls of color in STEM nationally, so she explained, “I’ve definitely been pushing my girls, especially my girls of color, my Latinx and my Black girls to definitely go out” and “I often tell them ‘paint engineering with your red lipstick,’ because I think that’s what we need to see is more women out there.”

Theme 2: Training
     The second theme of training related to the needs of underrepresented students in STEM was identified through participants’ reflections on formal and informal training opportunities they completed to effectively meet their students’ needs. Some of the participants received informal training with regard to STEM counseling and education. For example, Jane explained that when she first became a school counselor, she “became friends with a few school counselors who were also women of color. And they were . . . fierce advocates for girls of color in the computer science field specifically.” The informal professional development that this group of school counseling peers provided her then led to more formal training on “some of the various tools that are out there, programs that are available, ways in which you can target girls of color and just some of the roadblocks that we as school counselors might run into.” Though Jane received both formal and informal training, she explained, “I’m still learning . . . ways in which we can do better in terms of exposing students, building it into our program, collecting data around it.” Similar to Jane, Mark also had the opportunity to attend both formal and informal training. Mark stated, “I’ve attended the occasional webinar here and there that focuses specifically on that particular demographic.” He also added that he had conversations with “some of the professors and the advisors [at neighboring colleges] within those STEM programs that really helped develop a broader understanding.”

In contrast, many participants (n = 7) could not discuss informal or formal training opportunities with regard to STEM and supporting underrepresented students. Kate explained that she received “nothing in the formal sense” with regard to STEM counseling or education training. Similarly, Christy stated, “I would say formally none, nothing professional regarding development, or seminars, workshops, or anything like that.” However, she did have some informal training because supporting underrepresented students’ STEM interests has been “a conversation that we have had with our counseling department of how to bring different types of professionals into the school and bringing them into the career days.” Dawn expressed that “STEM is such a big field. I still need help learning and understanding everything that STEM offers.” Sharing a similar sentiment in needing to know more, Tina explained, “I wish I knew more. . . . It’s just, I want to know more. I want to be able to support them. My goodness.”

Theme 3: Active Engagement
     The third theme of active engagement in supporting underrepresented students’ STEM career interests emphasized the roles the high school counselors took to support students with STEM career interests. Many participants recognized their role as high school counselors in providing students with exposure to STEM career fields and supporting students’ prior knowledge of STEM. Embedded into the interviews with participants was the role of the school counselor and STEM. Christy stated, “It’s really our role to bridge that gap and make the connections that may not have been made previously, or the students might not have had access to before.” Mark shared his role in optimizing students’ strengths:

“Every student is going to present his or her own set of talents and abilities. . . . it’s my job to make sure that I can help them recognize what those talents and abilities are and help them cultivate a passion.”

Participants also took pride in building relationships with students early in their high school experience to assist them in discovering STEM careers. Kelly stated, “We definitely talk about it when students come to our offices. When we meet with our eighth graders coming into high school, we definitely let them know, here are your options.”

A method of bridging the gap for underrepresented students is by providing access to academic and postsecondary STEM opportunities. Christy spoke to her experience of supporting underrepresented students by providing that access:

We introduced that summer bridge class for the students. So, this will be the first year that we will potentially see the benefit of that. And hopefully seeing stronger grades in those students, especially students coming from public schools, minority students who are just now having access to the private school resources.

Similarly, Jane found value in encouraging her underrepresented students with passions in STEM to take advantage of all opportunities. Jane spoke of an encounter with a previous student. She recalled, “Last year I had a Black female student who said that she had started coding classes in middle school. . . . She really liked it, so I was like, ‘Great. We’re going to do all of them.’” In increasing access for students, the participants were intentional to ensure underrepresented students have opportunities. Kate stated, “I keep a lookout for virtual fly-in opportunities, especially when I know I have a student that’s interested in STEM and they are of a minority group, I always nominate them for those fly-ins.”

Jane summarized her role in supporting underrepresented students’ interests in STEM by saying:

“The school counselor has a huge role in not only exposing students to the possibilities of STEM careers but really targeting and explicitly encouraging Black students, Latino students to participate in and learn more about the STEM field.”

Further, regarding taking an active role in encouraging underrepresented students to pursue STEM, one participant, Kate, reflected on how her own racial identity motivates her to encourage students of color:

Me being a woman of color, I can’t help but feel like I’m rooting for everybody Black. . . . That’s not to say that I don’t encourage my non-students of color to also pursue STEM. . . . I feel like I have to really look out for my students of color, in my counseling department, I’m the only Black counselor. So, I do feel more pressure to really look out for them because I know, prior to me getting there, they weren’t inviting Historical Black Colleges and Universities [HBCUs] to come out. There was no HBCU session at our college fairs and so forth. No one was sending out information about the multicultural fly-ins. . . . Now I’m doing it and I forward it to my coworkers.

Lauren discussed how she actively identifies underrepresented students for STEM-related opportunities. Communication is key, she said: “Good communication with my teachers, so of course, math and science teachers, if they’re in tune with their students, that’s really helpful, identify the students and let me know.” In addition to communication with teachers, Lauren found value in using college and career cluster surveys with students. Lauren said the most impact her role has with students with regard to STEM is during career assessments “when they’re identifying that their talents or their personality matches up with any of the STEM fields.” She noted, “I think that’s brought in the most numbers of kids.” Other participants also used more formal career development tools. Christy stated, “We use Naviance at our school for college planning,” and Jo stated, “Our school uses Xello. It does a lot of interest surveys and gets students to see where they’re at, their personality, their interests and then matches it to careers.”

Theme 4: Barriers
     Barriers related to supporting underrepresented students’ STEM interests emerged as the fourth theme, with participants reflecting on hindrances to their ability to support underrepresented students’ STEM careers and opportunities. These barriers included: COVID-19, school, administration, students’ self-efficacy, and language.

     COVID-19 is a barrier that was presented in most of the participants’ interviews (n = 8). It was primarily identified as a context impacting students negatively and also one that resulted in changes to school counselors’ roles and day-to-day practice. When reflecting on the beginning of the pandemic, Lauren expressed, “All I did from March through May was call, email, and bother parents and seniors about graduation and making sure they were alive. That completely impacted my role for minority students pursuing STEM. . . . We were down to basic needs.” Christy also reflected on COVID-19 and said, “It’s really been bad. I would say that minorities in general, that’s probably the hardest group to get to virtually” with regard to communicating with students as a result of virtual schooling. Jo echoed Christy’s sentiments and stated, “I think the biggest challenge has been the distance, like not being able to meet them one-on-one.” Jo further explained, “Some of our students do not have all the technology they need, so they can’t jump on a Zoom, or maybe they do and the Wi-Fi is really bad.”

     Participants also highlighted requirements at the school level that hinder students from accessing STEM careers and opportunities. Jo stated, “A student could do everything they need to graduate high school but not necessarily be ready for the university.” Jo was referring to the lack of college readiness and opportunity his school provides. Moreover, Kelly stated, “So they’re interested in that…the medical or the engineering. But when they find out, ‘I can get more credit in an AP,’ it kind of turns them off a little bit.” AP courses can help students with a weighted GPA, bring students closer to meeting graduation requirements, and give them college credits. In Kelly’s experience, her students are interested in STEM fields; however, it is hard to combat the course credit hours linked to an AP course versus a STEM course. Furthermore, in relation to school barriers, Kate mentioned the importance of anti-racist school practices:

I would probably even go as far as to say, knowing that all of our STEM teachers and faculty are anti-racist and I don’t know that all of them are. And the reason why I think that that’s important is because it’s possible that they receive opportunities for students, and are they aggressively sending or communicating those opportunities out to students of color? 

     In addition to COVID-19 and school barriers, participants also highlighted the lack of time and some administrative issues as barriers to supporting underrepresented students who are interested in STEM. For example, Jane discussed that high school is late in a student’s educational experience to only just begin discussing STEM:

I think the primary barrier is getting them so late. I mean, high school is late. It’s not too late, of course. It’s never too late. Students can always find their interest and their passion. But it’s not like the super early stages.

Jane further emphasized that by the time students of color are in high school, they may already lack the necessary exposure to STEM coursework:

I don’t know if any of my Black students are coming into ninth grade with that previous exposure. . . . I know that some of them are not. And so, I think that is a huge barrier. Not having them already exposed to a lot of what the STEM fields can offer.

Another challenge that participants highlighted was not having enough time to meet with students individually because of their caseload or administrative tasks. For example, Christy mentioned, “Another barrier is just time. Even with my caseload this year, I have 350 students.” Similarly, Lauren discussed “the lack of time, and the bulk of so many other responsibilities being given to counselors by administrators” as an impediment.

She further explained that the wide list of administrative duties at the high school level not only impeded her ability to meet students’ needs but also prompted her to leave high school and work at the elementary school level. Likewise, Kelly also explained how administrative tasks hinder her ability to have “meaningful conversations in a smaller school setting” because instead of meeting with students individually, she highlighted that she has “19 other things to do . . . because of the makeup of my job.”

Students’ Self-Efficacy
     Participants also identified barriers regarding underrepresented students’ beliefs about STEM and their STEM abilities. Mark explained that one of the biggest issues he faces in supporting students from diverse backgrounds who are interested in STEM “is that they struggle with some of the challenging courses.” Similarly, Jane expressed that students may have struggled in STEM coursework during elementary and middle school, resulting in negative self-efficacy beliefs like “I’m not a math person or I’m not good at math.” In a similar vein, Jo explained that some of his underrepresented students do have the academic foundation; however, they “sometimes don’t feel as confident” about their STEM abilities. He stated, “I think a lot of my students, when they’re looking at these careers, sometimes they don’t see themselves in those careers and so that steers them away. . . . They just don’t feel it’s a possibility.”

     Lastly, some participants recognized the prevalence of barriers specific to the Latinx community. Tina mentioned the role of a counselor when helping students make the connections to various career options:

Working with Latinx and some undocumented or DACA students, the students of color, and even first-generation students . . . our role is very influential. In certain situations, especially for my kiddos whose parents don’t speak English, we are the adult, we are the person that’s helping them make those important decisions.

Some families Jo worked with did not always understand the materials about a STEM opportunity because of language barriers. He emphasized the importance of having materials in languages all families can understand:

We can sometimes talk about opportunities, but if it’s not getting into the hands of the families and if they’re not understanding what the opportunity is, they may not be as willing to allow their kid to attend maybe a 6-week program or a college program.


     STEM fields are growing in demand and are in need of talented and diverse individuals from varying gender identities and racial backgrounds (BLS, 2020; NCES, 2019). High school is the last opportunity in the K–12 system to promote and increase the pipeline of underrepresented students pursuing STEM careers. This study sought to support and extend the literature on the role of school counselors in supporting underrepresented students’ STEM career interests while also exploring the impact of context, including the COVID-19 pandemic, on STEM counseling. The findings emphasize the importance of high school counselors in promoting, encouraging, and supporting girls, racial minorities, and students at the intersections of both identities who are interested in STEM careers.

The results of this study aligned with the findings of Shillingford and colleagues (2017) that knowledge and training related to STEM professions was lacking for school counselors. Similarly, in the present study, some participants were able to identify concrete formal and informal training that they received in regard to STEM careers and diversity issues, but many of the participants in this study stated that they either received no training or were in need of more information and training related to STEM careers and diversity concerns. Further, time was similarly identified as a barrier. In both studies, school counselors explained that there is not enough time in the day to dedicate to discussing STEM career pathways with students individually.

Our findings have added a more nuanced understanding of time as a barrier for students and school counselors given its emphasis on high school. School counselors (n = 3) discussed how lack of prior STEM academic experiences can have negative consequences for high school students’ interest in STEM. For example, if a student is missing the foundational academic understanding of STEM before they get to high school, then they can fall further behind in the academic work even though they may express an interest in STEM careers. In addition, although high school is not too late to intervene and support students’ STEM interests, it is late in the academic journey to both (a) supplement academic understanding and (b) combat the internalized beliefs that students may have because of their prior educational experiences with STEM.

Similar to the work of Falco and Summers (2019), the importance of self-efficacy was explained by the participants in this study. For example, both Jo and Jane explained how Black and Latinx girls may lack confidence in themselves and not see themselves as being capable of pursuing and excelling in STEM careers. In interviews, they both observed how students either struggling in STEM coursework previously or not seeing themselves represented in STEM careers experienced diminished self-confidence regarding STEM. Although none of the participants explicitly discussed the term self-efficacy, they explained that Black and Brown students and girls may have low STEM-related self-efficacy and school counselors can play a role in increasing students’ exposure to STEM. The role high school counselors play in exposing students to diversity in STEM and diverse STEM careers is integral to challenging students’ distorted STEM self-efficacy beliefs. Moreover, Christy discussed her role in supporting students with STEM bridge courses—school counselors’ participation in these programs can help students develop STEM skills and self-efficacy.

Furthermore, in alignment with ASCA’s (2021) emphasis on school counselors’ role in supporting the social-emotional learning and career development of students, the findings in this study also revealed the importance of career development assessments in high school counselors’ ability to support students. Career assessment tools and platforms such as Naviance, Xello, CollegeBoard, etc., provided participants in this study with the tools to 1) identify students who may be interested in STEM careers and 2) help students connect their interests and abilities to STEM careers. Though school counselors might be pressed for time, utilizing career assessments can help structure individual meetings with students and open the door to follow-up conversations and programming surrounding careers in STEM.

In addition, the findings also revealed the importance of making community connections and utilizing social media to further support underrepresented students as they pursue STEM careers. Participants mentioned the importance of connecting students with HBCUs or other colleges in the area in order to help underrepresented students explore postsecondary options in STEM. Moreover, to increase students’ access to representation, as Dawn mentioned, high school counselors can expose students to social media campaigns that emphasize the representation of Black women in STEM, Latinx women in STEM, Native American men in STEM, and more. Increasing students’ access to more diverse images and professionals in STEM can help students to think about what being in STEM can look like after high school and, therefore, begin to see themselves in those STEM positions.

With the current emphasis on anti-racist educational processes in mind, the findings revealed the importance of communication. Participants explained that specifically, communication with math and science teachers is critical to identifying and supporting underrepresented students who are exhibiting strong potential in STEM. Additionally, Kate pointed out the importance of knowing that everyone in the school, including teachers and school counselors, are engaging in anti-racist practices in order to communicate with underrepresented students surrounding opportunities that increase access to STEM. Schmidt and colleagues (2012) also emphasized the importance of school counselors encouraging teachers to remove systemic barriers to students’ educational success. Moreover, Jo and Tina highlighted the importance of having materials for students and parents in various languages in order to communicate STEM possibilities. In engaging in anti-racist practices, it is important for school counselors to collaborate with school administrators to reduce barriers in communication, particularly surrounding the languages used to share STEM opportunities targeted to underrepresented students.

Overall, the findings of this study revealed that COVID-19 has resulted in additional barriers to supporting underrepresented high school students’ STEM career interests. In alignment with the emerging literature surrounding COVID-19 and its impact on the educational system, participants explained the technology gap is even wider for their Black and Brown students (Aguilar, 2020). Students’ inadequate access to technology has made it difficult for school counselors even to check in with students, much less discuss students’ STEM career aspirations. As Lauren mentioned, many school counselors have been addressing students’ basic needs during the pandemic. Although many STEM companies are still hiring during the pandemic and STEM careers are still projected to grow even after the pandemic, school counselors’ conversations with underrepresented students regarding STEM may be stalled at this time.


     The present study has implications for school counseling practice, counselor education, and school administration. As expressed in the participants’ interviews, high school counselors care deeply about supporting underrepresented students’ STEM interests, despite the barriers. At the same time, high school counselors may be limited in their own training and their knowledge of STEM opportunities. Furthermore, COVID-19 has resulted in additional barriers for school counselors who may already be confronted with limited time and resources.

School Counseling
     Students may benefit from school counselors sharing more STEM postsecondary options. For example, when discussing postsecondary options related to STEM, none of the participants discussed students participating in apprenticeships. Most participants reflected on connecting students to universities, including HBCUs. However, apprenticeships are paid industry-driven experiences in which students can receive specialized training with a company (U.S. Department of Labor, n.d.). Many apprenticeship programs are related to STEM. For example, there are apprenticeships for information technology specialists, medical laboratory specialists, and pharmacy technicians. In addition, a main benefit of completing an apprenticeship program in a STEM industry after high school is that after the completion of their apprenticeship, over 90% of employers retain their apprentices for full-time employment.

Moreover, although COVID-19 has shifted many schools to virtual formats, there are still opportunities for school counselors to help underrepresented students. For example, many STEM companies, such as Boeing, AT&T, Abbott, and more, are offering students virtual internship experiences. Websites such as Vault.com have offered virtual internship job search tools during the pandemic. In addition, online tools such as LinkedIn Learning can provide students ages 16 and above with access to training opportunities related to coding, math, and science concepts. School counselors increasing their knowledge about practical virtual STEM resources can help increase underrepresented students’ access to STEM careers during the pandemic. Through connecting with local university and community college career services departments, school counselors can learn more about STEM resources to share with students. In addition, there are several STEM-focused social media groups that school counselors can join in order to learn more about STEM. School counselors with an interest in STEM can develop more state or regional interest networks within their school counseling organizations in order to share resources and information with each other.

Counselor Education
     This study also has several implications for counselor educators who will train the next generation of school counselors. Several participants highlighted that they had limited or no training on STEM career opportunities. In order to help increase school counselors’ knowledge regarding the need for STEM professionals and the ways that they can support underrepresented students, counselor educators can incorporate this learning into career counseling coursework. For instance, as an assignment, counselor educators can help school counseling graduate students utilize career counseling theory to develop a program aimed at promoting STEM to underrepresented high school students. Utilizing career counseling coursework to encourage students to find creative solutions to career-related issues can help make this course more meaningful and practically significant for future school counselors.

In addition, counselor educators can engage in research endeavors to build the literature connecting school counseling and STEM education. In doing so, counselor educators can host webinars, present at conferences, and disseminate information in both school counseling newsletters and professional journals in order to help increase school counselors’ knowledge on the needs of underrepresented students who may be interested in STEM. Additionally, counselor educators can collaborate with ASCA to conduct professional development opportunities for school counselors that explain relevant literature on STEM and how school counselors help develop students’ STEM career aspirations.

School Administration
     Similarly, school administrators can support and encourage school counselors to attend professional development opportunities regarding STEM. This support can entail sharing STEM-related professional development opportunities with school counselors and giving school counselors the time to attend these professional development opportunities. Additionally, school administrators could benefit from listening to school counselors’ recommendations for how schools can better support underrepresented students and ensure equitable access to STEM coursework. Further, school administrators can review policies to incorporate anti-racist practices that promote STEM to diverse populations of students. These practices can include: (a) reviewing the racial and gender makeup of STEM courses to ensure equitable representation of students in STEM courses; (b) building connections with community organizations and stakeholders that provide resources to underrepresented students who are interested in STEM; and (c) ensuring that school counselors have access to documents regarding STEM opportunities to share with students and their parents in multiple languages, including both English and Spanish. Moreover, school administrators can work to ensure that the duties assigned to school counselors align with the ASCA National Model (2012) and allow school counselors to focus on STEM-related career development interventions for students.

Limitations and Future Research 

     There are several limitations to this study that warrant discussion. First, many of the participants in this study were counselors of color. Thus, there may be an element of self-selection bias wherein participants (school counselors of color) were more inclined to value the purpose of the study and be more connected to the experiences of underrepresented students. Hence, future research can emphasize the importance of all school counselors, regardless of race, addressing the needs of underrepresented students in STEM. Similarly, all the counselors in this study were several years removed from their graduate school experience. School counselors who have graduated recently may have more training and awareness of the disparities in STEM; thus, future studies can explore beginning counselors’ knowledge of STEM issues and support of underrepresented students.

In addition, all interviews were conducted virtually, which can increase the likelihood of response inhibition, wherein participants were uncomfortable with confidentiality and privacy when speaking across the internet (Janghorban et al., 2014). Future studies that are not limited by a pandemic or geography may benefit from doing in-person interviews in participants’ schools or an environment where the participants feel more comfortable. Although validity practices such as journaling, external auditing, and check-ins were utilized by our lead researcher, her closeness to the topic as both a professional and a Black woman may have impacted the objectivity of the study. The sample size was in accordance with phenomenological research; however, an increased sample size that is even more representative of school counselors from high schools across the nation could help increase this study’s generalizability.

Future research studies can explore the educational experiences of underrepresented professionals (e.g., Black women) in STEM in order to better understand what makes students pursue and stay in STEM fields as well as the role of the school counselor in their future success in STEM. In addition, future studies can explore how school counselors can collaborate with career advisors at local colleges in order to increase diversity in the STEM pipeline. In a similar vein, future studies can explore the experiences of underrepresented high school students who received STEM-related support from their school counselors and transitioned to college to pursue a major in STEM. Also, very few of the participants in this study explicitly spoke to their experience supporting Native American and Indigenous students. Given the lack of Indigenous and Native American professionals in STEM, future studies can specifically focus on their needs with regard to STEM education.


In sum, school counselors play a vital role in supporting the academic and career success of all students. For students who may find themselves underrepresented in STEM, high school counselors can make the difference by exposing them to possibilities and opportunities in STEM. High school might be some students’ last opportunity to (a) explore and discover varying career paths, (b) complete the preparation needed for a smooth transition to college, and/or (c) access resources to support diversity in STEM. In spite of barriers and limitations, school counselors ensure that students, regardless of gender or race, do not fall through the cracks and are encouraged to pursue any profession they desire, including a career in STEM.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
This study was made possible by a grant from
the Virginia Counseling Association Foundation.
The authors reported no conflict of interest
for the development of this manuscript.



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Interview Questions

What is your understanding of the issues of diversity in STEM?

What training did you receive regarding the needs of underrepresented students who are interested in STEM?

What do you believe is the role of a school counselor in supporting underrepresented students’ interest in STEM careers?

What is your role in supporting STEM academic and career opportunities for underrepresented students?

What has been your experience in promoting STEM careers to underrepresented students?

How do you identify underrepresented students who may have potential or interest in STEM careers?

What barriers do you face in promoting STEM careers to underrepresented students?

What school and community factors influence your ability to support underrepresented students’ STEM career aspirations and interests?

How do you prepare underrepresented students for postsecondary opportunities in STEM?

What do you wish was different about how you support underrepresented students’ STEM career interests and aspirations?

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your role in supporting underrepresented students’ STEM career aspirations and interests?


The authors would like to thank and acknowledge the Virginia Counseling Association Foundation; and Lexi Caliendo and Kirsten Nozime for their feedback, which improved the quality of this study. Autumn L. Cabell, PhD, NCC, LPC, CCC, CCTP, is an assistant professor at DePaul University. Dana Brookover, PhD, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of Scranton. Amber Livingston, MEd, is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University. Ila Cartwright, MEd, is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University. Correspondence may be addressed to Autumn L. Cabell, DePaul University, 2247 N Halsted St., Rm. 246, Chicago, IL 60614, acabell@depaul.edu.

Resilience and Coping as Moderators of Stress-Related Growth in Asians and AAPIs During COVID-19

Stacey Diane Arañez Litam, Seungbin Oh, Catherine Chang


This exploratory study examined the extent to which coping, resilience, experiences of subtle and blatant racism, and ethnic identity predicted stress-related growth in a national convenience sample of Asians and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs; N = 326) who experienced COVID-19–related racial discrimination. Our analysis indicated participants with higher levels of coping, resilience, experiences of subtle and blatant racism, and ethnic identity were significantly more likely to cultivate higher levels of stress-related growth. Coping strategies such as self-blame, religion, humor, venting, substance use, denial, and behavioral disengagement significantly moderated the relationship between experiences of racism and stress-related growth. Notably, participants in the study who used mental health services following COVID-19 reported significantly higher levels of racial discrimination, resilience, coping, and stress-related growth compared to Asians and AAPIs who did not use professional mental health services. Mental health professionals are called to utilize culturally sensitive treatment modalities and challenge traditional Western notions that frame coping responses from an individualistic worldview.

Keywords: Asian, Asian American, COVID-19, racial discrimination, stress-related growth


Asians and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) represent vulnerable ethnic groups that may present with higher rates of mental health distress during COVID-19. Following the global outbreak, rates of discrimination, harassment, and violence toward Asians and AAPIs have substantially increased (Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, 2020; Jeung & Nham, 2020). The rise of COVID-19–fueled racism directed toward Asians and AAPI groups, especially individuals who phenotypically appear East Asian, has deleterious effects on their mental health and wellness (Litam, 2020; Litam & Oh, in press, 2020; Wen et al., 2020).

Although Asians who reside in the United States and AAPI groups are both affected by COVID-19–related racial discrimination, mental health professionals must recognize the important distinctions and challenges that exist between Asian internationals and Asian Americans (Anandavalli et al., 2020; Sue et al., 2019). Professional counselors must also consider the vast heterogeneity that characterizes Asian and AAPI ethnic subgroups (Budiman & Ruiz, 2021; Chan & Litam, 2021). Although an extensive overview of the differences between Asians and AAPI ethnic subgroups was beyond the purview of this study, mental health professionals are called to examine how the intersection of client identities (e.g., international status, nationality, ethnic identity, acculturative status, colonization history) may influence the ways in which COVID-19 racial discrimination affects Asian and AAPI clients (Chan & Litam, 2021; Litam, 2020). For the purpose of contributing to the scant literature on the effects of COVID-19 on Asian and AAPI communities, the current study assesses a national convenience sample of Asians and AAPI groups who reported discrimination experiences following the pandemic. Aggregating these distinct populations was not intended to overlook the vast heterogeneity that exists across ethnic subgroups nor to invalidate the unique challenges faced by Asian and AAPI individuals who reside in the United States. Rather, the present study combined Asian and AAPI populations to ascertain a more collective understanding of the ways in which the greater community may be affected by COVID-19–related racial discrimination.

Effects of Racial Discrimination on Asian and AAPI Mental Health
     Extant research illuminated how perceived racial discrimination among Asian and AAPI communities has adverse effects on overall mental health, coping responses, and wellness. Asians and AAPIs who faced race-based discrimination reported higher levels of psychological distress, substance use, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation (Choi et al., 2020; Gee et al., 2007; Hwang & Goto, 2008; Le & Ahn, 2011; Leong et al., 2013). Experiences of race-related stress in Asians and AAPIs were also associated with negative outcomes related to well-being (Iwamoto & Liu, 2010; Mossakowski, 2003), self-esteem (Liang & Fassinger, 2008), and social connectedness (Wei et al., 2012). Although the importance of understanding the effects of COVID-19–related racial discrimination on the mental health of Asians and AAPIs has been established (Asmundson & Taylor, 2020; Chan & Litam, 2021; Litam, 2020), a paucity of empirical investigations examines the mental health effects of pandemic-related discrimination among Asians and AAPIs across the life span (Litam & Oh, in press).

Ethnic Identity
     Ethnic identity is the quality of an individual’s affiliation with their ethnic group and includes a sense of belongingness, self-identification, and attitudes toward one’s group (Phinney, 1990). Phinney (1992) outlined four developmental stages based on high and low levels of exploration and commitment. Whereas exploration includes activities and behaviors undertaken to understand the role of one’s ethnicity or race in one’s identity, commitment refers to the affirmation, sense of connection, and clarity about how one’s ethnic or racial identity fits into one’s life and self-concept (Phinney, 1992). Taken together, the two dimensions of exploration and commitment form four statuses of ethnic and/or racial identity development: diffused (low exploration, low commitment), foreclosed (low exploration, high commitment), moratorium (high exploration, low commitment), and achieved (high exploration, high commitment; Erikson, 1968).

The mixed effect of ethnic identity in the relationship between racial discrimination experiences and well-being has been noted across earlier studies. On one hand, existing research has noted that Asians and AAPIs who cultivated strong ethnic identities were more likely to maintain a positive sense of psychological well-being, reported a greater sense of belongingness to their ethnic communities, and responded with greater resilience when racial discrimination occurred (Lee, 2003; Lee & Davis, 2000; Lee & Yoo, 2004; Litam & Oh, in press; Phinney, 2003; Yip & Fuligni, 2002). In the United States, AAPIs with a strong sense of ethnic identity reported a better quality of life and greater levels of spousal support and harmony (Lieber et al., 2001). In one study with 187 Chinese and Chinese Americans, strong ethnic identity moderated the relationship between experiences of COVID-19 discrimination and levels of depression (Litam & Oh, 2020). Levels of exploration and commitment may additionally influence whether ethnic identity buffers or exacerbates well-being among Asians and AAPIs who experience racial discrimination. According to a meta-analysis of 51 studies, Yip and colleagues (2019) asserted that individuals high in exploration reported more negative mental health and riskier health behavior outcomes following experiences of racial discrimination. Conversely, ethnic identity was a protective factor for individuals with high levels of commitment following racial discrimination (Yip et al., 2019).

The moderating effects of ethnic identity on Asian and AAPI mental health may be framed within the context of social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and self-categorization theory (Turner et al., 1987). According to social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), individuals are members of many social groups with whom they may identify (e.g., religion, race, ethnicity, gender). Once individuals have determined their social identities, they become invested in maintaining and enhancing their self-concept (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Social identity theory therefore predicts that individuals who center their identities are better equipped to cope with identity threats to protect their overall self-concept (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Through the lens of this theory, individuals who strongly identify with their Asian or AAPI identities may be better positioned to engage in coping strategies that buffer the harmful impact of ethnic or racial discrimination.

Self-categorization theory builds on social identity theory by recognizing that individuals can identify with several social groups simultaneously and that some social identities become more psychologically salient than others (Turner et al., 1987). When ethnic identity becomes salient and represents an important component of one’s identity, self-categorization theory predicts that ethnic and racial discrimination will have a stronger negative impact on mental health and wellness outcomes (Turner et al., 1987). Taken together, social categorization theory predicts that positive feelings toward one’s ethnic group may heighten awareness to ethnic discrimination, which may exacerbate the harmful effects of ethnic or racial discrimination (Lee, 2005), whereas social identity theory posits that high regard for one’s ethnic identity may result in a buffering effect to the deleterious effects of racial discrimination (Yip et al., 2019).

     Resilience refers to the “personal qualities that enable one to thrive in the face of adversity” (Connor & Davidson, 2003, p. 76). Although responding with resilience in times of stress has been reported across diverse AAPI subgroups, various ethnic groups may conceptualize resilience in unique ways. As a coping strategy, resilience is not limited to how one responds to challenges but also encompasses strategies for goal achievement. For example, Hmong women demonstrated resilience in career development by adopting positive perspectives, focusing on goal achievement, and reflecting on ways to continue improving (Yang, 2014). In another study, Chinese immigrants demonstrated fortitude through the immigration process and continued to thrive in the United States despite living in poverty in a California Chinatown community (Cheng, 2013). Resilience, therefore, consists of a stress response and an enduring phenomenon. Resilience may be fostered through the presence of social support, especially among family members (Lim & Ashing-Giwa, 2013), through the promotion of cultural understanding (i.e., cultivating ethnic identity), engaging in meaningful activities, and developing mental toughness (i.e., resilience; Kim & Kim, 2013).

Coping and Stress Responses
     Individuals evaluate racial discrimination experiences and cope with stressors differently based on their cultural values and beliefs (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Tweed & Conway, 2006). Asians and AAPIs who endorse higher levels of ethnic identity may be more likely to employ coping strategies that align with culturally embedded values (Miller & Kaiser, 2001; Miller & Major, 2000). These cultural values may assert the importance of adjusting one’s feelings to fit their environment, accepting rather than confronting problems, preserving social harmony, avoiding problem disclosure (Inman & Yeh, 2007; Tweed & Conway, 2006; Yeh et al., 2006), and evading conflict to preserve interpersonal relationships (Noh & Kaspar, 2003). These passive forms of coping may be problematic, as avoidant and emotion-focused responses may contribute to poorer mental health outcomes in AAPIs.

Other culturally congruent coping responses such as social isolation, which protects the user by avoiding the stressor (Edwards & Romero, 2008); self-blame or criticizing oneself, which maintains interpersonal harmony (Wei et al., 2010); and substance use (Pokhrel & Herzog, 2014), which momentarily helps one evade problems or adjust one’s feelings to the environment, may also be preferred by Asians and AAPIs. Following stressful events, social isolation has been strongly linked to increased symptoms of depression and anxiety, decreased feelings of self-worth, and lower levels of life satisfaction (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2003; Cacioppo et al., 2002).

Stress-Related Growth
     Individuals may respond to stressful life events, transitions, and traumatic experiences with positive psychological changes (Park et al., 1996; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). Researchers posit that coping strategies (Helgeson et al., 2006; Janoff-Bulman, 2004; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004), higher levels of self-esteem, positive spiritual changes, and increased social support (Linley & Joseph, 2004; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995, 2004) may arise following experiences of stress. According to Tedeschi and Calhoun (1996, 2004), examples of stress-related growth may include pursuing new possibilities, having a greater appreciation for life, cultivating meaningful relationships, enhancing spiritual growth, and developing personal strengths. A meta-analysis of 103 studies identified the presence of coping strategies, cognitive reappraisal, religion, optimism, and social support as significant predictors for stress-related growth (Prati & Pietrantoni, 2009). A qualitative study with Korean immigrants indicated the use of coping strategies was a predictor for stress-related growth (Kim & Kim, 2013).

Tedeschi and Calhoun (1996, 2004) conceptualized stress-related growth as both a long-term outcome and a process. For instance, stress-related growth has been conceptualized as a coping strategy following traumatic events (Nolen-Hoeksema & Davis, 2004) and may occur as the result of ongoing medical conditions such as cancer (Cordova et al., 2017) and chronic pain (Rzeszutek & Gruszczyńska, 2018), wherein traumatic experiences are not time-limited. Thus, stress-related growth may result from the ongoing process of awareness, adaptation, and concern related to medical, psychological, and social consequences associated with the conditions of living (Edmondson et al., 2011). Given the precedence of emerging research that measures stress-related growth during COVID-19 (Vasquez et al., 2021), stress-related growth was included as an outcome variable in our study. This variable was of particular interest because research remains forthcoming on the contributing factors to stress-related growth among Asians and AAPIs following experiences of stress related to COVID-19.

The call to identify moderators of mental health in Asian and AAPI communities following racial discrimination has been established (Litam, 2020; Litam & Oh, in press; Nadal et al., 2015; Wong et al., 2014). It is of paramount importance to identify race-related response strategies to develop culturally sensitive and effective counseling interventions (Chan & Litam, 2021; Frazier et al., 2004; Litam & Hipolito-Delgado, 2021). The relationship between COVID-19–fueled racial discrimination, ethnic identity, resilience, and coping responses in Asian and AAPI populations remains to be seen and necessitates special consideration for mental health professionals. Understanding this relationship is crucial when considering how Asians and AAPIs tend to avoid health care services (DeVitre & Pan, 2020; Sue et al., 2019). To address this paucity of literature, this study was undertaken to examine the following research questions:

  1. To what extent do coping, resilience, experience of racism, and ethnic identity predict stress-related growth following COVID-19?
  2. To what extent does coping moderate experiences of COVID-19–related racism and stress-related growth?
  3. To what extent does resilience moderate experiences of COVID-19–related racism and stress-related growth?


     Data was collected from June to July 2020. A total of 409 Asian and AAPI individuals were recruited through AAPI listservs and community organizations (n = 10) and Amazon MTurk (n = 399). Sixty-eight respondents from Amazon MTurk completed less than 50% of the survey items, so their associated surveys were removed from the data. An additional 11 respondents from Amazon MTurk endorsed all survey items with the same response or incorrectly answered validity items, and their surveys were also eliminated from the data. Lastly, four multivariate outliers were removed (i.e., Mahalanobis distance value > 20.515 at a = .001), resulting in a final sample of 326 cases (79.7% useable response rate). The final sample (N = 326) met sufficient sample size for hierarchical multiple regression (N > 94) and a path analysis (N > 134; O’Rourke & Hatcher, 2013) at a = .01 to identify medium effect size.


Table 1

Descriptive Characteristics and Correlations

Characteristic Frequency %
Male 225 69.0%
Female 101 31.0%
Education Level
High School Diploma or the equivalent 6 1.8%
Associate Degree 6 1.8%
Bachelor’s Degree 205 62.9%
Master’s Degree 95 29.1%
Doctorate Degree 14 4.3%
Sexual Identity
Heterosexual 220 67.5%
Gay or Lesbian 9 2.8%
Bisexual, Pansexual, or Non-Monosexual 91 27.9%
Other 6 1.8%
Seeking Mental Health Service Since COVID-19
Yes 153 46.9%
No 149 45.7%
No, but I have considered it 24 7.4%
Variable a M SD 1 2 3 4 5
SBRS .91 27.48 7.28
SRGS .95 77.05 15.09 .510**
MEIM .61 22.56 3.20 .437** .429**
Resilience .95 134.92 20.97 .301** .703** .436**
Coping .92 79.05 13.10 .662** .699** .521** .518**

 Note. SBRS = Subtle and Blatant Racism Scale; SRG = Stress-Related Growth Scale; MEIM = Multigroup
Ethnic Identity Measure.
**p < .01


Table 1 presents details regarding descriptive characteristics of participants in this study. The average age of Asian and AAPI participants was 33.79 years (SD = 9.19), ranging from 18 to 72 years. The majority of participants identified as male (69.0%, n = 225), and a smaller group identified as female (31%; n = 101). Most participants reported having an international status (72.7%, n = 237), whereas 27.3% of participants (n = 89) identified as an American citizen or permanent U.S. resident. For one item, “Have you sought professional mental health counseling services since COVID-19?” approximately half of the participants (46.9%, n = 153) selected “Yes,” a total of 150 participants (45.7%) selected “No,” and a total of 24 participants (7.4%) indicated “No, but I’ve considered it.”

     IRB approval from relevant universities was obtained prior to data collection. Potential participants were recruited using non-probability convenience sampling with inclusion criteria. Participants who (a) self-identified as Asian or Asian American, (b) resided in the United States, and (c) had either directly or indirectly experienced COVID-19–related racism were able to participate in the study. Participants from the MTurk obtained $0.50 as an incentive for their completion of the survey. To ensure the quality of data, the survey included two validity items that asked participants to choose specific response options. Participants who chose incorrect responses were automatically excluded from participation in the survey. 

Demographics and Background Form
     A demographics/background information form was created to gather information regarding participants’ age, gender, highest level of education, race/ethnicity, sexual identity, income level, occupation, international status, religion, and generational status. Additional survey items assessed English proficiency and how rates of discrimination evidenced through verbal, covert, online, and physical harassment may have changed following COVID-19. Participants were provided with the option to input text describing additional forms of racial discrimination experienced since COVID-19.

Multigroup Ethnic Identity Measure – Revised (MEIM-R)
     The Multigroup Ethnic Identity Measure (MEIM; Phinney, 1992) is a 14-item scale that assesses three aspects of ethnic identity: positive ethnic attitudes and a sense of belonging (five items), ethnic identity achievement (seven items), and ethnic behaviors or practices (two items). The measure is scored by reversing negatively worded items, summing the scores across each item, and obtaining the mean. Scores range from 4 (high ethnic identity) to 1 (low ethnic identity). Overall reliability was .90 in a college sample, and the results of a principal axis factor analysis using squared multiple correlations supported the presence of two factors, ethnic identity and other-group group orientation, accounting for 30.8% and 11.4% in college samples, respectively (Phinney, 1992). The MEIM was shortened into a six-item scale that measures two subscales, Identity Exploration and Identity Commitment (MEIM-R; Brown et al., 2014). Example items include “I have spent time trying to find out more about my own ethnic group, such as its history, traditions, and customs” and “I think a lot about how my life will be affected by my ethnic group membership.” The MEIM-R demonstrated adequate internal consistency for the overall scale and two subscales with all Cronbach alpha values near or above .70 (Brown et al., 2014). Based on the results of multiple-groups confirmatory factor analyses, the MEIM-R demonstrated evidence of measurement invariance, had good psychometric properties, and is an appropriate measure of ethnic identity across diverse Asian subgroups (Brown et al., 2014).

Resilience Scale (RS)
     The Resilience Scale (RS; Wagnild & Young, 1993) is a 25-item measure that uses a 7-point Likert-type scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Example items include “I usually manage one way or another” and “I feel that I can handle many things at a time.” The RS demonstrated a coefficient alpha of .91 with item-to-total correlations ranging from .37 to .75. The concurrent validity of the RS was also robust and was strongly associated with measures of life satisfaction, morale, and depression. The results of a factor analysis indicated the RS is a reliable measure that demonstrated good internal consistency reliability, concurrent validity, and preliminary construct validity (Wagnild & Young, 1993). 

Subtle and Blatant Racism Scale for Asian Americans Revised (SABRA-A2)
The Subtle and Blatant Racism Scale for Asian Americans Revised (SABRA-A2; Yoo et al., 2010) is an 8-item measure that uses a 5-point Likert-type scale from 1 (almost never) to 5 (almost always) to assess the presence of subtle and blatant forms of racial discrimination. The total score is obtained by summing the responses across each of the items, with higher scores indicating greater perceived racism. Example items include “In America, I am faced with barriers in society because I’m Asian” and “In America, I have been physically assaulted because I’m Asian.” Support for the two-subscale structure was confirmed through an exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis with evidence of good internal reliability and stability over 2 weeks (Yoo et al., 2010). The SABRA-A2 also demonstrated good discriminant validity as evidenced by no correlations with color-blind racial attitudes (Yoo et al., 2010).

Brief COPE
     The Brief COPE (Carver, 1997) is a 28-item measure and uses a 4-item Likert-type scale to measure the extent to which participants report using various coping strategies. The measurement has 14 subscales that include two items each. Available responses are 1 (I haven’t been doing this at all), 2 (I’ve been doing this a little bit), 3 (I’ve been doing this a medium amount), and 4 (I’ve been doing this a lot). Example items include “I’ve been concentrating my efforts on doing something about the situation I’m in” and “I’ve been criticizing myself.” The Brief COPE has demonstrated acceptable psychometric properties and has been used with Asian populations (Sue et al., 2019). Cronbach’s alpha for the entire scale is .92 in the current study. Cronbach’s alpha for each of the 14 subscales ranged from .34 to .65. Given the poor reliability for the subscales, the present study utilized the total score for the entire scale.

Stress-Related Growth Scale Revised (SRGS-R)
     The Stress-Related Growth Scale Revised (SRGS-R; Boals & Schuler, 2018), is a 15-item measure that assesses the extent to which participants experience change following a negative event. The scale uses a bipolar 7-point Likert-type scale from −3 (a very negative change) to +3 (a very positive change), and example items include “I experienced a change in the extent to which I listen when others talk to me” and “I experienced a change in my belief that I have something of value to teach others about life.” The SRGS-R demonstrated acceptable measures of convergent validity and stronger associations with outcome measures of mental health, including depression, anxiety, global distress, and post-traumatic symptoms (Boals & Schuler, 2018). Compared to other measures, the SRGS-R may be a more accurate measure for human resiliency as evidenced by the neutral wording of each item and the inclusion of items that avoid measuring illusory growth (Boals & Schuler, 2018).

Data Diagnostics
     Examining the proportion of missing data indicated that 88% of participants reported no missing values, and 83% of the items were not missing data for any case. The proportion of missing data for the rest of the 17% of the items ranged from 2.7% to 16.8%. The degree and pattern of missing data were examined to determine whether data were missing at random. A matrix of the estimated means with each pattern yielded no particular patterns nor severe degree of missing data, which supported evidence for proceeding with missing data replacement techniques. Missing data points were populated using multiple imputation (MI), a method to allocate missing data without causing inflated bias even when there is a large portion of missingness in the data (Osborn, 2013).

     Next, the assumptions of normality, linearity, homoscedasticity, and multicollinearity were tested. The residuals were linear and did not deviate from normality as evidenced by the residuals lying reasonably in a straight, diagonal line. The assumption of homoscedasticity was also supported, as most of the residuals were concentrated along the zero point. All variance inflation factor (VIF) values were less than 10 and tolerance values were greater than .1, indicating absence of multicollinearity (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2019). Therefore, the data were deemed appropriate for hierarchical regression and path analysis (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2019).

Analytic Strategy
     Hierarchical regression models of stress-related growth were employed using SPSS version 27. First, gender, age, education status, sexual identity, and help-seeking experience were entered in Model 1 as the control variables. In Model 2, the first independent variable of subtle and blatant racism was added. In Model 3, the second independent variable of ethnic identity was entered. Finally, the remaining two independent variables of resilience and coping strategy were added as key predictors that may function as potential moderators in Model 4.

To examine potential moderating roles of resilience and coping strategy in the relationship between racism and stress-related growth, Hayes’ (2018) PROCESS macro version 3.5 was conducted. Specifically, 10,000 bootstrapping resampling was conducted to produce 95% percentile confidence intervals (CIs) for the moderating effect. If the CIs excluded zero, moderating effect was considered to be significant. Furthermore, the moderating effects were examined utilizing three conditional values of moderators (Hayes, 2018; Preacher et al., 2017), which included low (the mean score of the moderator −1 SD), moderate (the mean score), and high values (the mean score of the moderator +1 SD). Bodner’s (2017) formula was used to calculate effect size across moderator values. All predictors and moderators were mean-centered for more meaningful interpretation of moderating effect (Hayes, 2018).


Preliminary Analyses
     Descriptive characteristics are found in Table 1. Male and female participants reported similar mean scores on all measurements, except the SABRA-A2. Female participants reported experiencing significantly higher levels of racism (M = 29.10, SD = 6.25) than their male counterparts (M = 26.75, SD = 7.59), with a small effect size (d = 0.34; Cohen, 1998). Participants who had sought mental health services since COVID-19 reported significantly higher resilience scores (M = 138.78, SD = 20.59), experiences of subtle and blatant racism (M = 29.99, SD = 6.38), coping strategy (M = 84.34, SD = 12.61), and stress-related growth (M = 81.13, SD = 14.25) than participants who either did not seek professional mental health services or who considered seeking services, but had not used them.

     Correlational analyses among all study variables were conducted. Table 1 presents the correlations among the predictive and outcome variables assessed in the study as well as the mean and standard deviations for each variable and internal reliability for each measurement. As expected, ethnic identity, resilience, coping strategy, and stress-related growth were positively and moderately correlated with each other. Interestingly, subtle and blatant racism were also positively related to ethic identity, resilience, coping, and stress-related growth.

Hierarchical Regression Analyses
     Results from the hierarchical regression analyses are provided in Table 2. The control variables of gender, age, education status, sexual identity, and help-seeking experience were examined in Model 1. Among the control variables, education status, sexual identity, and help-seeking experiences were significantly associated with stress-related growth for Asians and AAPIs. Specifically, participants who had earned a master’s degree or higher and identified as heterosexual had significantly lower scores of stress-related growth compared to those who did not identify as heterosexual. Moreover, participants who sought mental health services following the COVID-19 outbreak reported significantly higher scores of overall stress-related growth compared to those who did not use professional mental health services. Model 1 accounted for 11.6% of the variance in stress-related growth.

The direct effects of subtle and blatant racism on stress-related growth were examined in Model 2. Subtle and blatant racism had a significantly positive relationship with stress-related growth among Asians and AAPIs (β = .456, p < .001) after controlling for gender, age, education, sexual identity, and help-seeking experience. Thus, higher levels of subtle and blatant racism were correlated with higher levels of stress-related growth. Among the control variables, only education status was found to be significantly associated with stress-related growth. Model 2 explained 28.8% of the variance in stress-related growth. The addition of subtle and blatant racism accounted for a 17.2% increase in the explained variance in stress-related growth, which was deemed a medium effect size (Cohen, 1998).

Ethnic identity was added in Model 3. Results indicated that ethnic identity was significantly positively associated with stress-related growth for Asians and AAPIs (β = .244, p < .001) after controlling for gender, age, education, sexual identity, and help-seeking experience. Based on these results, participants in the study who endorsed stronger levels of ethnic identity were more likely to cultivate higher levels of stress-related growth. Model 3 accounted for 33.5% of the variance in stress-related growth. The addition of ethnic identity explained 4.7% of increase in the variance of stress-related growth.

Resilience and coping strategy were added and analyzed in Model 4. Both resilience and coping strategy had significantly positive associations with stress-related growth for Asians and AAPIs after controlling for gender, age, education, sexual identity, and help-seeking experience. Specifically, Asians and AAPIs who had higher levels of resilience and higher levels of coping strategy were more likely to develop higher levels of stress-related growth. Model 4 explained 66.2% of the variance in stress-related growth. The addition of resilience and coping strategy accounted for a 32.7% increase in the explained variance in stress-related growth, which represented a large effect size (Cohen, 1998).

Moderating Effect of Resilience and Coping Strategy
     To examine the moderating effect of resilience and coping strategy, Hayes’ (2018) PROCESS macro (Model 1) was employed using 10,000 bootstrapping resamples. As shown in Table 3, coping strategy was significantly positively related to the slope of subtle and blatant racism on stress-related growth
(β = .017, p < .001). Based on these results, coping strategy significantly moderated (i.e., strengthened) the positive link between racism and stress-related growth. As the moderator, coping strategy explained 1.4% of the total variance (51.2%) in stress-related growth, yielding a small effect size (Cohen, 1998). The nature of the moderating effect is presented in the simple slope analyses (Figure 1). Subtle and blatant racism had a significant effect on the development of stress-related growth for Asians and AAPIs with higher levels of coping strategy (+1 SD; b = .468, 95% CI [.169, .767]), but the significant effect did not hold for those with lower levels of coping strategy (−1 SD; b = .017, 95% CI [−.224, .257]). A +2 SD increase in resilience yielded less than .001 change in the conditional effect on stress-related growth, which was small in magnitude (Bodner, 2017). Thus, resilience did not significantly moderate the link between racism and stress-related growth.


Table 2

Results From Hierarchical Multiple Regression and Moderated Path Analysis

Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Variables Β (S.E.) β Β (S.E.) β Β (S.E.) β Β (S.E.) β

Female (ref)

   Male −1.668


−.051 .187


.006 −.036


−.001 −1.831



> 34 (ref)

  ≤ 34 −1.205
−.039 −2.059


−.067 −2.287


−.074 .397



≤ Bachelor (ref)

≥ Master −5.017


−.157** −3.470


−.109* −2.249


−.070 .320


Sexual Identity

Non-hetero (ref)

   Heterosexuality −4.479


−.139** −1.721


−.109 −1.621


−.050 −1.512



No (ref)

   Yes 6.796


.225*** 2.691


.089 2.880


.095 .452


SBRS .947


.456*** .734


.354*** .220


MEIM 1.152


.244*** −.172


Resilience .357


Coping .433


R2 .116 .288 .335 .662
∆ R2 .172 .047 .327

 Note. Β = unstandardized regression coefficients; S.E. = standard errors; β = standardized coefficients; SBRS = Subtle and Blatant Racism Scale; MEIM = Multigroup Ethnic Identity Measure; ref = reference group.
*p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001


Table 3

Results From Moderation Path Analysis

Variable β SE LLCI ULCI
SBRS 0.242* 0.115 0.015 0.469
Coping 0.718*** 0.062 0.596 0.841
SBRS × Coping 0.017** 0.006 0.006 0.029
Controlled Variables
    Age −1.420 1.215 −3.811 0.971
    Gender −0.681 1.297 −3.232 1.871
    Education −1.409 1.287 −3.942 1.124
    Sexual Identity 0.185 1.304 −2.380 2.750
    Help-Seeking 0.070 1.282 −2.452 2.592
SBRS 0.577*** 0.089 0.403 0.751
Resilience 0.443*** 0.029 0.387 0.499
SBRS × Resilience 0.001 0.004 −0.006 0.009
Controlled Variables
    Age 0.472 1.109 −1.709 2.654
    Gender −1.704 1.175 −4.015 0.607
    Education -0.084 1.174 −2.227 2.395
    Sexual Identity −2.569* 1.184 −4.899 −0.239
    Help-Seeking 1.542 1.138 −0.696 3.781

Note. SBRS = Subtle and Blatant Racism Scale; LLCI = lower limit of confidence interval; ULCI = upper limit
of confidence interval.
*p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001.


Supplementary Analyses
     Because the 14 coping subscales demonstrated poor reliability, we examined which types of coping strategies moderated the link between racism and stress-related growth. Among the different types of coping responses, self-blame, religion, humor, venting, substance use, denial, and behavioral disengagement had significant moderation effects on the relation between racism and stress-related growth. On the contrary, self-distraction, active coping, use of emotional support, use of instrumental support, positive reframing, planning, and acceptance did not significantly moderate the relationship between racism and stress-related growth.


Figure 1 

Coping Strategy Moderates the Effect of Subtle and Blatant Racism on Stress-Related Growth


The present study examined the extent to which coping, resilience, experiences of racism, and ethnic identity predicted stress-related growth in a national convenience sample of Asian and AAPI individuals. The results of our exploratory study provide empirical evidence for the moderating effects of coping on the relationship between racial discrimination and stress-related growth in Asians and AAPIs following the COVID-19 pandemic. In our study, ethnic identity was positively associated with stress-related growth, which further supports the current body of research linking ethnic identity to well-being (Iwamoto & Liu, 2010; Mossakowski, 2003; Yip et al., 2019). Our findings may be additionally explained through the lens of social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), which posits that individuals who strongly identify with their social identities (i.e., ethnic and/or racial identities) are better equipped to leverage effective coping strategies that protect their overall self-concept and buffer the harmful impact of discrimination.

Participants in the study who used mental health services following COVID-19 also reported significantly higher levels of racial discrimination, resilience, coping, and stress-related growth compared to Asians and AAPIs who did not use professional mental health services. The results from our study are consistent with existing research that asserted how individuals may cultivate coping responses following traumatic experiences (Helgeson et al., 2006; Janoff-Bulman, 2004; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004) in ways that can strengthen the relationship between stressful experiences (i.e., racism) and stress-related growth (Park et al., 1996; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). The results of our study therefore contribute to a larger body of research that establishes the relationship between stress-related growth and psychological health, optimism, positive affect, and psychological well-being (Bostock et al., 2009; Bower et al., 2009; Durkin & Joseph, 2009) while contributing nascent findings to the relationship between COVID-19 racial discrimination and stress-related growth in Asian and AAPI communities.

The results from Model 1 indicated education status, sexual identity, and help-seeking experiences were significantly associated with stress-related growth for Asians and AAPIs in the study. Specifically, participants who reported higher levels of education and identified as heterosexual or straight had lower scores of stress-related growth compared to those who did not identify as heterosexual. These findings are notable as individuals with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and other marginalized identities experience more stress and mental health issues compared to their heterosexual counterparts (Mongelli et al., 2019), resulting in greater opportunities to cultivate coping responses, build resilience, and establish meaningful social supports (Helgeson et al., 2006; Janoff-Bulman, 2004; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). Participants in our study who used mental health services following the COVID-19 outbreak reported significantly higher levels of stress-related growth compared to Asians and AAPIs who did not use professional mental health services. One possible explanation for this finding may be that participants who sought mental health services already demonstrated higher levels of psychological mindedness, which may have influenced higher levels of stress-related growth following COVID-19–related racial discrimination.

In our study, the combined effects of resilience and coping explained 66.2% of the variance in Model 4, with coping strategies moderating the relationship between experiences of racism and stress-related growth. Participants in our study may have learned cognitive coping responses in the therapeutic setting that mitigated the effects of racism and cultivated stress-related growth. Our findings are consistent with the results of a meta-analysis (n = 103) that identified coping responses such as reappraisal, acceptance, and support seeking as significant predictors of stress-related growth (Prati & Pietrantoni, 2009). The specific coping responses that moderated the link between racism and stress-related growth in this study were self-blame, religion, humor, venting, substance use, denial, and disengagement. Leveraging these coping strategies in response to stressful experiences may be consistent with culturally congruent coping responses that protect Asians and AAPIs by avoiding the stressor (Edwards & Romero, 2008; Litam, 2020). Consistent with extant research on culturally congruent coping, engaging in self-blame responses may maintain interpersonal harmony (Wei et al., 2010), and humor, venting, denial, disengagement, and substance use may help one evade problems or adjust one’s feelings to the environment (Pokhrel & Herzog, 2014). The results of our study are thus consistent with research that emphasizes the influence of cultural notions on coping responses (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Tweed & Conway, 2006) while contributing new findings about which coping responses may contribute to stress-related growth in Asian and AAPI communities following COVID-19.

Implications for Counselors
     This study highlights how experiences of racism, ethnic identity, resilience, and coping strategies may cultivate stress-related growth among Asian and AAPI individuals who experience COVID-19–related racial discrimination. Each of these variables were found to predict stress-related growth in our study. Mental health professionals working with Asian and AAPI clients who have experienced COVID-19 racism are encouraged to consider how their clients’ ethnic identity, resilience, and coping strategies may be leveraged to promote their well-being. In this exploratory study, participants with higher levels of ethnic identity experienced greater levels of stress-related growth, so it may behoove mental health professionals to embolden Asian and AAPI clients to fortify the quality of their ethnic group affiliation by pursuing cultural practices that promote a sense of group belongingness (Phinney, 1990). For example, ethnic identity can be cultivated by fostering community connection through local Asian and AAPI organizations, embracing cultural notions, and learning more about one’s culture, background, and family history (Chan & Litam, 2021; Litam, 2020). Clients who embody strong ethnic identities may be more likely to employ coping strategies that align with culturally embedded values; therefore, it is essential that mental health counselors recognize their own cultural values while remaining respectful of their client’s cultural values (Chang & O’Hara, 2013; see MSJCC, Ratts et al., 2016).

Given the importance of coping strategies and resilience on stress-related growth, mental health professionals are encouraged to identify and amplify clients’ existing coping strategies while fostering responses that cultivate resilience. Though limited, a supplementary analysis indicated that different forms of coping, such as self-blame, religion, humor, venting, substance use, denial, and disengagement, may moderate the relationship between racism and stress-related growth among Asian and AAPI communities facing racial discrimination following COVID-19. Thus, mental health professionals working with Asian and AAPI clients must assess the intention and outcome of client coping responses and challenge individualistic assumptions that minimize the value of culturally congruent coping strategies. The importance of using culturally sensitive therapeutic interventions when supporting Asian and AAPI clients during COVID-19 has been established (Litam, 2020). For example, mental health professionals must challenge assumptions that disengagement coping strategies are inherently problematic for their Asian and AAPI clients (Wong et al., 2010). Instead, mental health professionals are encouraged to focus on the usefulness of their Asian and AAPI clients’ coping strategies without imposing their own preconceived notion of what healthy and unhealthy coping entails. Of note, substance use was identified as a coping strategy used by participants in this study. Counselors are therefore called to examine the purpose and outcomes associated with client substance use with nuance to determine the extent to which ongoing substance use may contribute to mental health sequelae.

Limitations and Future Areas of Study
     The results of the study must be interpreted within the context of methodological limitations. First, although all participants resided in the United States, the majority of participants held international statuses compared to U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Readers must be cautioned before generalizing these findings to AAPIs, who may endorse generational differences. Next, it is possible that participants recruited from MTurk may not be representative of the general Asian and AAPI population in the United States (Burnham et al., 2018). Future areas of research may consider incorporating various strategies to recruit more representative samples. Additional areas of investigation may also examine how generational identity may affect the extent to which coping, resilience, racism, and ethnic identity predict stress-related growth. Next, although a significant positive association was found between using professional mental health services and levels of resilience, racism, coping, and stress-related growth, it is unknown whether participants in the study already embodied higher levels of stress-related growth, coping, and resilience before seeking services. Future areas of study may examine whether these variables may actually predict help-seeking behaviors in Asians and AAPIs. For example, seeking professional mental health services is consistent with predictors of stress-related growth, including leveraging community support, engaging in cognitive responses, appraisal, and facilitating meaning making (Park & Fenster, 2004; Prati & Pietrantoni, 2009). Moreover, the validity of the findings from the supplementary analysis could be limited because of the low reliability of 14 subscales. Finally, Asians and AAPIs were aggregated in the study, which results in the loss of important within-group distinctions. Future studies are warranted that investigate the extent to which coping, resilience, racism, and ethnic identity predict stress-related growth in specific Asian and AAPI subgroups.


     Asians and AAPIs who employ culturally congruent coping responses may experience greater levels of stress-related growth following experiences of COVID-19–related racial discrimination. In this study, higher levels of ethnic identity, resilience, and coping responses predicted stress-related growth in a national convenience sample of Asians and AAPIs residing in the United States. Asians and AAPIs in this study who sought professional mental health services reported higher levels of racism and endorsed higher scores of resilience, coping, and stress-related growth compared to those who did not seek professional mental health services. Mental health professionals are encouraged to support Asian and AAPI clients in strengthening their ethnic identity, building resilience, and using culturally congruent coping responses to mitigate the effects of COVID-19–related racism and promote the development of stress-related growth.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.



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Stacey Diane Arañez Litam, PhD, NCC, CCMHC, LPCC-S, is an assistant professor at Cleveland State University. Seungbin Oh, PhD, NCC, LPC, is an assistant professor at Merrimack College. Catherine Chang, PhD, NCC, LPC, CPCS, is a professor at Georgia State University. Correspondence may be addressed to Stacey Litam, 2121 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115, s.litam@csuohio.edu.

University Student Well-Being During COVID-19: The Role of Psychological Capital and Coping Strategies

Priscilla Rose Prasath, Peter C. Mather, Christine Suniti Bhat, Justine K. James


This study examined the relationships between psychological capital (PsyCap), coping strategies, and well-being among 609 university students using self-report measures. Results revealed that well-being was significantly lower during COVID-19 compared to before the onset of the pandemic. Multiple linear regression analyses indicated that PsyCap predicted well-being, and structural equation modeling demonstrated the mediating role of coping strategies between PsyCap and well-being. Prior to COVID-19, the PsyCap dimensions of optimism and self-efficacy were significant predictors of well-being. During the pandemic, optimism, hope, and resiliency have been significant predictors of well-being. Adaptive coping strategies were also conducive to well-being. Implications and recommendations for psychoeducation and counseling interventions to promote PsyCap and adaptive coping strategies in university students are presented.

Keywords: university students, psychological capital, well-being, coping strategies, COVID-19


In January 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of a new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, to be a public health emergency of international concern, and the effects continue to be widespread and ongoing. For university students, the pandemic brought about disruptions to life as they knew it. For example, students had to stay home, adapt to online learning, modify internship placements, and/or reconsider graduation plans and jobs. The aim of this study was to understand how the sudden changes and uncertainty resulting from the pandemic affected the well-being of university students during the early period of the pandemic. Specifically, the study addresses coping strategies and psychological capital (PsyCap; F. Luthans et al., 2007) and how they relate to levels of well-being.

University Students and Mental Health
     Although mental health distress has been an issue on college campuses prior to the pandemic (Flatt, 2013; Lipson et al., 2019), COVID-19 has and will continue to magnify this phenomenon. Experts are projecting increases in depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide in the United States (Wan, 2020). Johnson (2020) indicated that 35% of students reported increased anxiety associated with a move from face-to-face to online learning in the spring 2020 semester, matching the early phases of the COVID-19 outbreak. Stress associated with adapting to online learning presented particular challenges for students who did not have adequate internet access in their homes (Hoover, 2020).

Researchers have reported that high levels of technology and social media use are associated with depression and anxiety among adolescents and young adults (Huckins et al., 2020; Primack et al., 2017; Twenge, 2017). Given the current realities of physical distancing, there are fewer opportunities for traditional-age university students attending primarily residential campuses to maintain social connections, resulting in social fragmentation and isolation. Research has demonstrated that this exacerbates existing mental health concerns among university students (Klussman et al., 2020).

The uncertainties arising from COVID-19 have added to anticipatory anxiety regarding the future (Ray, 2019; Witters & Harter, 2020). From the Great Depression to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, victims of these life-shattering events have had to deal with their present circumstances and were also left with worries about how life and society would be inexorably altered in the future. University students are dealing with uncertain current realities and futures and may need to bolster their internal resources to face the challenges ahead. In this context, positive coping strategies and PsyCap may be increasingly valuable assets for university students to address the psychological challenges associated with this pandemic and to maintain or enhance their well-being.

Coping Strategies
     Coping is often defined as “efforts to prevent or diminish the threat, harm, and loss, or to reduce associated distress” (Carver & Connor-Smith, 2010, p. 685). There are many ways to categorize coping responses (e.g., engagement coping and disengagement coping, problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping, accommodative coping and meaning-focused coping, proactive coping). Engagement coping includes problem-focused coping and some forms of emotion-focused coping, such as support seeking, emotion regulation, acceptance, and cognitive restructuring. Disengagement coping includes responses such as avoidance, denial, and wishful thinking, as well as aspects of emotion-focused coping, because it involves an attempt to escape feelings of distress (Carver & Connor-Smith, 2010; de la Fuente et al., 2020). Findings on the effectiveness of problem-focused coping strategies versus emotion-focused coping strategies suggest the effectiveness of the particular strategy is contingent on the context, with controllable issues being better addressed through problem-focused strategies, while emotion-focused strategies are more effective with circumstances that cannot be controlled (Finkelstein-Fox & Park, 2019). In general, problem-focused coping strategies, also known as adaptive coping strategies, include planning, active coping, positive reframing, acceptance, and humor (Carver & Connor-Smith, 2010). Other coping strategies, such as denial, self-blame, distraction, and substance use, are more often associated with negative emotions, such as shame, guilt, lower perception of self-efficacy, and psychological distress, rather than making efforts to remediate them (Billings & Moos, 1984). These strategies can be harmful and unhealthy with regard to effectively coping with stressors. Researchers have recommended coping skills training for university students to modify maladaptive coping strategies and enhance pre-existing adaptive coping styles to optimal levels (Madhyastha et al., 2014).

Flourishing: The PERMA Well-Being Model
     Positive psychologists have asserted that studies of wellness and flourishing are important in understanding adaptive behaviors and the potential for growth from challenging circumstances (Joseph & Linley, 2008; Seligman, 2011). Flourishing (or well-being) is defined as “a dynamic optimal state of psychosocial functioning that arises from functioning well across multiple psychosocial domains” (Butler & Kern, 2016, p. 2). Seligman (2011) proposed a theory of well-being stipulating that well-being was not simply the absence of mental illness (Keyes, 2002), but also the presence of five pillars with the acronym of PERMA (Seligman, 2002, 2011). The first pillar, positive emotion (P), is the affective component comprising the feelings of joy, hope, pleasure, rapture, happiness, and contentment. Next are engagement (E), the act of being highly interested, absorbed, or focused in daily life activities, and relationships (R), the feelings of being cared about by others and authentically and securely connected to others. The final two pillars are meaning (M), a sense of purpose in life that is derived from something greater than oneself, and accomplishment (A), a persistent drive that helps one progress toward personal goals and provides one with a sense of achievement in life. Seligman’s (2011) PERMA model is one of the most highly regarded models of well-being.

Seligman’s multidimensional model integrates both hedonic and eudaimonic views of well-being, and each of the well-being components is seen to have the following three properties: (a) it contributes to well-being, (b) it is pursued for its own sake, and (c) it is defined and measured independently from the other components (Seligman, 2011). Studies show that all five pillars of well-being in the PERMA model are associated with better academic outcomes in students, such as improved college life adjustment, achievement, and overall life satisfaction (Butler & Kern, 2016; DeWitz et al., 2009; Tansey et al., 2018). Additionally, each pillar of PERMA has been shown to be positively associated with physical health, optimal well-being, and life satisfaction and negatively correlated with depression, fatigue, anxiety, perceived stress, loneliness, and negative emotion (Butler & Kern, 2016). At a time of significant stress, promoting the highest human performance and adaptation not only helps with well-being in the midst of the challenge but also can provide a foundation for future potential for optimal well-being (Joseph & Linley, 2008).

Psychological Capital (PsyCap)
     PsyCap is a state-like construct that consists of four dimensions: hope (H), self-efficacy (E), resilience (R), and optimism (O), often referred to by the acronym HERO (F. Luthans et al., 2007). F. Luthans et al. (2007) developed PsyCap from research in positive organizational behavior and positive psychology. PsyCap is defined as an

individual’s positive psychological state of development characterized by (1) having confidence (self-efficacy) to take on and put in the necessary effort to succeed at challenging tasks; (2) making a positive attribution (optimism) about succeeding now and in the future; (3) persevering toward goals and, when necessary, redirecting paths to goals (hope) in order to succeed; and (4) when beset by problems and adversity, sustaining and bouncing back and even beyond (resilience) to attain success. (F. Luthans et al., 2015, p. 2)

Over the past decade, PsyCap has been applied to university student development and mental health. There is robust empirical support suggesting that individuals with higher PsyCap have higher levels of performance (job and academic); satisfaction; engagement; attitudinal, behavioral, and relational outcomes; and physical and psychological health and well-being outcomes. Further, they have negative associations with stress, burnout, negative health outcomes, and undesirable behaviors at the individual, team, and organizational levels (Avey, Reichard, et al., 2011; Newman et al., 2014). Researchers have also examined the mediating role of PsyCap in the relationship between positive emotion and academic performance (Carmona-Halty et al., 2019; Hazan Liran & Miller, 2019; B. C. Luthans et al., 2012; K. W. Luthans et al., 2016); relationships and predictions between PsyCap and mental health in university students (Selvaraj & Bhat, 2018); and relationships between PsyCap, well-being, and coping (Rabenu et al., 2017). 

Aim of the Study and Research Questions
     The aim of the current study was to examine the relationships among well-being in university students before and during the onset of COVID-19 with PsyCap and coping strategies. The following research questions guided our work:

  1. Is there a significant difference in the well-being of university students prior to the onset of COVID-19 (reported retrospectively) and after the onset of COVID-19?
  2. What is the predictive relationship of PsyCap on well-being prior to the onset of COVID-19 and after the onset of COVID-19?
  3. Do coping strategies play a mediating role in the relationship between PsyCap and well-being?


     A total of 806 university students from the United States participated in the study. After cleaning the data, 197 surveys were excluded from the data analyses. Of the final 609 participants, 73.7% (n = 449) identified as female, 22% (n = 139) identified as male, and 4.3% (n = 26) identified as non-binary. The age of participants ranged from 18 to 66 (M = 27.36, SD = 9.9). Regarding race/ethnicity, most participants identified as Caucasian (83.6%, n = 509), while the remaining participants identified as African American (5.3%, n = 32), Hispanic or Latina/o (9.5%, n = 58), American Indian (0.8%, n = 5), Asian (3.6%, n = 22), or Other (2.7%, n = 17). Fifty-four percent of the participants were undergraduate students (n = 326), and the remaining 46% were graduate students (n = 283). The majority of the participants were full time students (82%, n = 498) compared to part-time students (18%, n = 111). Sixty-three percent of the students were employed (n = 384) and the remaining 37% were unemployed (n = 225).

Data Collection Procedures
     After a thorough review of the literature, three standardized measures were identified for use in the study along with a brief survey for demographic information. Instruments utilized in the study measured psychological capital (Psychological Capital Questionnaire [PCQ-12]; Avey, Avolio et al., 2011), coping (Brief COPE; Carver, 1997), and well-being (PERMA-Profiler; Butler & Kern, 2016). Data were collected online in May and June 2020 using Qualtrics after obtaining approval from the IRBs of our respective universities. An invitation to participate, which included a link to an informed consent form and the survey, was distributed to all university students at two large U.S. public institutions in the Midwest and the South via campus-wide electronic mailing lists. The survey link was also distributed via a national counselor education listserv, and it was shared on the authors’ social media platforms. Participants were asked to complete the well-being assessment twice—first, by responding as they recalled their well-being prior to COVID-19, and second, by responding as they reflected on their well-being during the pandemic. 

Demographic Questionnaire
     A brief questionnaire was used to capture participant information. The questionnaire included items related to age, gender, race/ethnicity, relationship status, education classification, and employment status.

Psychological Capital Questionnaire – Short Version (PCQ-12)
     The PCQ-12 (Avey, Avolio et al., 2011), the shortened version of PCQ-24 (F. Luthans et al., 2007), consists of 12 items that measure four HERO dimensions: hope (four items), self-efficacy (three items), resilience (three items), and optimism (two items), together forming the construct of psychological capital (PsyCap). The PCQ-12 utilizes a 6-point Likert scale with response options ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Cronbach’s alpha coefficients as a measure of internal consistency of the HERO subscales in the current study were high—hope (α = .86), self-efficacy (α = .86), resilience (α = .73), and optimism (α = .83)—consistent with the previous studies.

Brief COPE Questionnaire
     Coping strategies were evaluated using the Brief COPE questionnaire (Carver, 1997), which is a short form (28 items) of the original COPE inventory (Carver et al., 1989). The Brief COPE is a multidimensional inventory used to assess the different ways in which people generally respond to stressful situations. This instrument is used widely in studies with university students (e.g., Madhyastha et al., 2014; Miyazaki et al., 2008). Fourteen conceptually differentiable coping strategies are measured by the Brief COPE (Carver, 1997): active coping, planning, using emotional support, using instrumental support, venting, positive reframing, acceptance, denial, self-blame, humor, religion, self-distraction, substance use, and behavioral disengagement. The 14 subscales may be broadly classified into two types of responses—“adaptive” and “problematic” (Carver, 1997, p. 98). Each subscale is measured by two items and is assessed on a 5-point Likert scale. Thus, in general, internal consistency reliability coefficients tend to be relatively smaller (α = .5 to .9).

     The PERMA-Profiler (Butler & Kern, 2016) is a 23-item self-report measure that assesses the level of well-being across five well-being domains (i.e., positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, accomplishment) and additional subscales that measure negative emotion, loneliness, and physical health. Each item is rated on an 11-point scale ranging from never (0) to always (10), or not at all (0) to completely (10). The five pillars of well-being are defined and measured separately but are correlated constructs that together are considered to result in flourishing (Seligman, 2011). A single overall flourishing score provides a global indication of well-being, and at the same time, the domain-specific PERMA scores provide meaningful and practical benefits with regard to the possibility of targeted interventions. The measure demonstrates acceptable reliability, cross-time stability, and evidence for convergent and divergent validity (Butler & Kern, 2016). For the present study, reliability scores were high for four pillars—positive emotion (α = .88), relationships (α = .83), meaning (α = .89), accomplishment (α = .82); high for the subscales of negative emotion (α = .73) and physical health (α = .85); and moderate for the pillar of engagement (α = .65). The overall reliability coefficient of well-being items is very high (α = .94).

Data Analysis Procedure
     The data were screened and analyzed using Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS, v25). Changes in PERMA elements were calculated by subtracting PERMA scores reported retrospectively by participants before the pandemic from scores reported at the time of data collection during COVID-19, and a repeated-measures ANOVA was conducted to examine the difference. Point-biserial correlation and Pearson product moment correlation coefficients were calculated to examine the relationships of demographic variables, PsyCap, and coping strategies with change in PERMA scores. Multivariate multiple regression was carried out to understand the predictive role of PsyCap on PERMA at two time points (before and during COVID-19). Structural equation modeling in Analysis of Moment Structures (AMOS, v23) software was used to test the mediating role of coping strategies on the relationship between PsyCap and change in PERMA scores. Mediation models were carried out with bootstrapping procedure with a 95% confidence interval.


      Prior to exploring the role of PsyCap and coping strategies on change in well-being due to COVID-19, an initial analysis was conducted to understand the characteristics and relationships of constructs in the study. Correlation analyses (see Table 1) revealed significant and positive correlations between four PsyCap HERO dimensions (i.e., hope, self-efficacy, resilience, and optimism; Avey, Avolio et al., 2011) and the six PERMA elements (i.e., positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, accomplishment, and physical health; Butler & Kern, 2016). Further, PsyCap HERO dimensions were negatively correlated to negative emotion and loneliness. Age was positively correlated with change in PERMA elements, but not gender. Similarly, approach coping strategies such as active coping, positive reframing, and acceptance (Carver, 1997) were resilient strategies to handle pandemic stress whereas using emotional support and planning showed weaker but significant roles. Similarly, religion also tended to be an adaptive coping strategy during the pandemic. Behavioral disengagement and self-blame (Carver, 1997) were found to be the dominant avoidant coping strategies that were adopted by students, which led to a significant decrease in well-being during the pandemic. Overall, as seen in Table 1, all three variables studied—PsyCap HERO dimensions, eight PERMA elements, and coping strategies—were highly related.


Table 1

Relationship of Demographic Factors, Psychological Capital, and Coping Strategies With Change in PERMA Elements

Variables Mean SD P E R M A N H L
Age 27.36 9.91 .15** .11** .14** .16** .14** .01 .03 -.17**
Course Ф .19** .10* .19** .16** .06 -.05 .09* -.14**
Nature of course Ф .06 .06 .12** .13** .09* .03 .03 -.10**
Gender Ф -.01 -.06 .01 -.02 -.02 .02 -.02 .03
Employment Ф -.17** -.11** -.13** -.19** -.10* .04 -.11** .11**
Self-Efficacy 13.80 3.21 .11** .13** .14** .18** .16** -.05 .15** -.03
Hope 18.68 3.92 .24** .26** .20** .34** .40** -.17** .21** -.10*
Resilience 13.41 3.08 .23** .22** .20** .32** .33** -.16** .15** -.13**
Optimism 8.61 2.39 .21** .27** .23** .32** .30** -.11** .16** -.10*
Self-Distraction 6.32 1.41 -.09* .01 .03 -.02 .01 .08* .02 .11**
Active Coping 5.83 2.01 .24** .28** .20** .28** .32** -.09* .23** -.08*
Denial 2.96 1.42 -.19** -.14** -.18** -.16** -.16** .24** -.16** .12**
Substance Use 3.60 2.02 -.18** -.15** -.15** -.20** -.20** .11** -.09* .17**
Using Emotional Support 5.07 1.81 .12** .11** .32** .18** .11** .04 .10* -.02
Using Instrumental Support 4.35 1.70 .01 .04 .20** .07 .02 .10* .04 .07
Behavioral Disengagement 3.96 2.11 -.43** -.37** -.40** -.46** -.44** .31** -.26** .27**
Venting 4.58 1.54 -.24** -.16** -.08* -.17** -.16** .29** -.09* .16**
Positive Reframing 5.12 1.78 .28** .27** .21** .26** .25** -.15** .18** -.14**
Planning 5.42 1.75 .07 .12** .11** .13** .11** .08 .08* -.04
Humor 4.93 2.00 -.02 -.02 -.02 -.04 -.06 -.02 .02 .05
Acceptance 6.47 1.43 .33** .27** .27** .34** .31** -.25** .21** -.15**
Religion 3.93 2.03 .21** .16** .16** .22** .13** -.08 .15** -.05
Self-Blame 4.08 1.72 -.33** -.27** -.29** -.36** -.36** .29** -.22** .20**

Note. P = Positive Emotion, E = Engagement, R = Relationships, M = Meaning, A = Accomplishment, N = Negative Emotion, H = Physical Health, L = Loneliness.
Ф Point-biserial correlation
* p < .05, ** p < .01

Research Question 1
     Results of a repeated-measures ANOVA presented in Figure 1 indicate that mean scores of PERMA decreased significantly during COVID-19: λ = .620; F (5,604) = 73.99, p < .001. Partial eta squared was reported as the measure of effect size. The effect size of the change in well-being for PERMA elements was 38%, ηp2 = .380, a high effect size (Cohen, 1988). As expected, negative emotion and loneliness significantly increased during the period of COVID-19, impacting overall well-being in an adverse manner. The average scores of negative emotion and loneliness increased from 4.46 and 3.86 to 5.85 and 5.94, respectively. Physical health significantly reduced from 6.58 to 5.91. The effect size of the change in the scores of individual PERMA elements ranged between 12.1% and 32.5%. Among the PERMA elements, engagement and physical health were least impacted by COVID-19, whereas students’ experiences of positive emotion and negative emotion were the factors that were largely affected.


Figure 1

Changes in the PERMA Prior to the Onset of COVID-19 and After the Onset of COVID-19

Note. P = Positive Emotion, E = Engagement, R = Relationships, M = Meaning, A = Accomplishment, N = Negative Emotion, H = Physical Health, L = Loneliness.


Research Question 2
     The predictive role of PsyCap on well-being at two time points (before and after the onset of COVID-19) was analyzed using multivariate multiple regression (see Table 2). Coefficients of determination for models predicting well-being from PsyCap dimensions ranged from 4% to 28%. Before the onset of COVID-19, 23% of the variance in well-being was explained by the PsyCap dimensions (R2 = .23, p < .001), with self-efficacy and optimism as the most significant predictors of well-being. However, during the pandemic, the covariance of the PsyCap dimensions with well-being increased to 39% (R2 = .39, p < .01). Interestingly, after the onset of the pandemic, the predictor role of certain PsyCap dimensions shifted. For example, optimism became the strongest predictor of overall well-being and hope emerged as a predictor of engagement, meaning, accomplishment, and physical health during the pandemic. The predictive role of hope was negligible before COVID-19. The predictive role of resilience on positive emotion, accomplishment, negative emotion, and loneliness also became significant during COVID-19. Self-efficacy was a consistent predictor of PERMA elements before COVID-19. But during COVID-19, the relevance of self-efficacy in predicting PERMA elements was limited to controllable factors—relationships, meaning, and physical health—and the predictive role of self-efficacy overall was no longer significant (see Table 2).


Table 2

Predicting PERMA Elements From Psychological Capital Prior to the Onset of COVID-19 and After the Onset of COVID-19

PERMA Self-Efficacy Hope Resilience Optimism Adj. R2 F
Before COVID-19
Positive Emotion .10* -.06 -.01 .44** .19 37.66**
Engagement .10* .06 .01 .11* .05 8.80**
Relationships .10* .07 -.09 .29** .12 21.33**
Meaning .21** .06 -.03 .38** .28 58.68**
Accomplishment .24** .06 .04 .13* .14 25.62**
Negative Emotion -.13** .10 -.05 -.29** .11 18.97**
Physical Health .16** .08 -.04 .12* .07 12.16**
Loneliness -.10* 0 -.01 -.19** .04 7.36**
Well-Being .19** .04 -.02 .35** .23 45.41**
During COVID-19
Positive Emotion .04 .09 .10* .41** .30 67.05**
Engagement .02 .21** .05 .26** .21 40.86**
Relationships .09* .1 -.01 .33** .19 36.72**
Meaning .11** .18** .09 .38** .39 99.93**
Accomplishment .05 .37** .14** .17** .39 96.96**
Negative Emotion -.03 -.07 -.13* -.23** .14 26.80**
Physical Health .16** .19** -.03 .14** .15 27.25**
Loneliness -.04 .01 -.11* -.20** .08 13.34**
Well-Being .07 .22** .08 .37** .39 97.48**

* p < .05, ** p < .01


Research Question 3
     Structural equation modeling was used to examine whether coping strategies mediate PsyCap’s effect on well-being. Coping strategies that predicted change in PERMA were used for mediation analysis. Indirect effects describing pathways from PsyCap factors to PERMA factors through identified coping strategies were tested for mediating roles. Results indicated that PsyCap affected well-being both directly and indirectly through coping strategies. Optimism had a significant indirect effect on change in well-being compared to hope and resilience (see Table 3). Among adaptive coping strategies, active coping, positive reframing, and using emotional support mediated the relationship between optimism and overall well-being. Interestingly, using emotional support also showed a similar mediating link between resilience and PERMA, but not for the factors of loneliness and negative emotion. On the other hand, self-blame and behavioral disengagement were two problematic coping strategies that mediated the relationship between optimism and all PERMA elements. Specifically, we found coping through self-blame playing a mediating role between PERMA factors and two of the HERO dimensions—resilience and hope.


Table 3

Indirect Effect of Psychological Capital on PERMA Factors Through Coping Strategies (Mediators)

PsyCap Standardized Beta (ß, Indirect effect)
                                                                L H N A M R E P
Active Coping Ф
Optimism -.016* .043** -.017* .06** .052** .037** .052** .044**
Resilience -.005 .014 -.006 .02 .017 .012 .017 .015
Hope -.007 .018 -.007 .025 .022 .015 .022 .018
Self-Efficacy -.009 .025 -.01 .034 .03 .021 .03 .025
Positive Reframing Ф
Optimism -.047** .06** -.05** .085** .088** .07** .094** .096**
Resilience -.005 .007 -.006 .01 .01 .008 .011 .011
Hope .003 -.003 .003 -.005 -.005 -.004 -.005 -.005
Self-Efficacy -.005 .006 -.005 .009 .009 .007 .01 .01
Using Emotional Support Ф
Optimism -.007 .02* .012 .03* .049** .086** .029* .032**
Resilience .003 -.012 -.005 -.013* -.021* -.037* -.012* -.014*
Hope 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Self-Efficacy -.001 .006 .002 .006 .01 .018 .006 .007
Self-Blame Ф
Optimism -.038** .043** -.056** .07** .07** .056** .054** .065**
Resilience -.03** .034** -.044** .055** .055** .044** .042** .051**
Hope -.023* .025* -.033* .042* .041* .033* .032* .038**
Self-Efficacy -.005 .006 -.007 .009 .009 .007 .007 .008
Behavioral Disengagement Ф
Optimism -.07** .067** -.081** .113** .118** .104** .097** .112**
Resilience -.02 .02 -.023 .033 .034 .03 .028 .033
Hope -.032 .03 -.036 .051 .053 .047 .044 .051
Self-Efficacy -.009 .009 -.011 .015 .016 .014 .013 .015

Note. Coping strategies with insignificant mediating role are not included in the table. P = Positive Emotion,
E = Engagement, R = Relationships, M = Meaning, A = Accomplishment, N = Negative Emotion, H = Physical Health,
L = Loneliness.
Ф Mediator coping strategies.
* p < .05, ** p < .01



The current study investigated the PERMA model of well-being (Seligman, 2011) with university students before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the relationships between PsyCap (F. Luthans et al., 2007), coping strategies, and well-being of university students. We examined whether the COVID-19 context shaped the efficacy of particular strategies to promote well-being. Findings are discussed in three areas: reduction in well-being related to COVID-19, shift in predictive roles of PsyCap HERO dimensions, and coping strategies as a mediator.

Reduction in Well-Being Related to COVID-19
     Well-being scores across all PERMA elements, including physical health, were lower than those reported retrospectively prior to the pandemic. Such a decline in well-being following a pandemic is consistent with previous occurrences of public health crises or natural disasters (Deaton, 2012). Participants reported higher levels of negative emotion and loneliness after the onset of COVID-19, and a decrease in positive emotion. It is this balance of positive and negative emotions that contributes to life satisfaction (Diener & Larsen, 1993), and our findings support the notion that fostering particular positive psychological states (PsyCap), as well as engaging in related coping strategies, promotes well-being in the context of this large-scale crisis.

Shift in Predictive Roles of PsyCap HERO Dimensions
     Consistent with prior research (Avey, Reichard et al., 2011; F. Luthans & Youssef-Morgan, 2017; Youssef-Morgan & Luthans, 2015), we found that PsyCap predicted well-being. PsyCap’s positive psychological resources (HERO dimensions) may enable students to have a “positive appraisal of circumstances” (F. Luthans et al., 2007, p. 550) by providing mechanisms for reframing and reinterpreting potentially negative or neutral situations. There was however an interesting shift in the predictive role of PsyCap dimensions before and after the onset of COVID-19. Prior to COVID-19, self-efficacy and optimism were the two major psychological resources that predicted university student well-being. However, after COVID-19, self-efficacy did not present as a predictor of well-being in this study. Although the reason for this result is uncertain, it is conceivable that attending to an uncertain future (i.e., hope) and recovering from immediate losses (i.e., resilience) became more salient, and one’s self-efficacy in managing normal, everyday challenges receded in importance. Indeed, optimism and hope each uniquely predict a major proportion of variance of the change in well-being and may together help students to face an uncertain future (M. W. Gallagher & Lopez, 2009). Resilience, the ability to recover from setbacks when pathways are blocked (Masten, 2001), had a predictive role on positive emotion and accomplishment in this study.

Coping Strategies as a Mediator
     While PsyCap directly relates to well-being and coping strategies relate to well-being, our findings indicated that coping strategies also played a significant mediating role in the relationship between PsyCap and well-being. Specifically, adaptive coping strategies played a significant role in enhancing the positive effects of PsyCap on well-being. Adaptive coping strategies—such as active coping, acceptance, using emotional support, and positive reframing—were found to better aid in predicting well-being. In this study, accepting the realities, using alternative affirmative explanations, seeking social support for meeting emotional needs, and engaging in active problem-focused coping behaviors seem to be the most helpful ways to counter the negative effects of the pandemic on well-being. Conversely, when individuals employed problematic coping strategies such as behavioral disengagement and self-blame (Carver, 1997), the negative impacts were much stronger than the positive effect of adaptive coping strategies.

Implications for Counselors

Given findings of the relationship between PsyCap and well-being in the current study, as well as in prior research (F. Luthans et al., 2006; F. Luthans et al., 2015; McGonigal, 2015), counselors may wish to focus on developing PsyCap to help university students flourish both during the pandemic and in a post-pandemic world. Two significant challenges to counseling professionals on college campuses are the lack of resources to adequately respond to mental health concerns among students and the stigma associated with accessing services (R. P. Gallagher, 2014; Michaels et al., 2015). Thus, efficient interventions that are not likely to trigger stigma responses are helpful in this context. Several researchers have found that relatively short training in PsyCap interventions, including web-based platforms (Dello Russo & Stoykova, 2015; Demerouti et al., 2011; Ertosun et al., 2015; B. C. Luthans et al., 2012, 2013) have been effective. Recently, the use of positive psychology smartphone apps such as Happify and resilience-building video games such as SuperBetter have been suggested and tested as motivational tools, especially with younger adults, to foster sustained and continued engagement with PsyCap development (F. Luthans & Youssef-Morgan, 2017; McGonigal, 2015). These are potential areas of practice for college counselors and counselors serving university students.

Interventions that are described as well-being approaches rather than those that highlight pathologies are less stigmatizing (Hunt & Eisenberg, 2010; Umucu et al., 2020) than traditional deficit-based therapeutic approaches. There are a number of research-based approaches offered in the field of positive psychology to guide mental health professionals to facilitate development of PsyCap and other important well-being correlates. These include approaches to building positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2009); coping strategies, which were found in this study to boost well-being (Jardin et al., 2018; Lyubomirsky, 2008); and effective goal pursuits (F. Luthans & Youssef-Morgan, 2017). One of the distinguishing characteristics of PsyCap is its malleability and openness to change and development (Avey, Reichard et al., 2011; F. Luthans et al., 2006). Thus, there is potential for counselors to develop well-being promotion initiatives for students on university campuses targeting PsyCap and its constituting positive psychological HERO resources with the end goal of strengthening well-being (Avey, Avolio et al., 2011; F. Luthans et al., 2015; F. Luthans & Youssef-Morgan, 2017).

Strategies and programming to develop wellness can be delivered in one-on-one sessions with students, as well as in group settings, and may have either a prevention or intervention focus. They could also be adapted to provide services online. A variety of free online assessments are also available for use by counselors, including tools that measure well-being, positive psychological resources, and character strengths of university students in addition to existing assessment batteries. By administering the PERMA-Profiler to university students, counselors could identify and understand what dimension of well-being should be further developed (Umucu et al., 2020). With each PERMA element individually rendering to flourishing mental health, specific targeted positive psychology interventions might be offered as domain-specific interventions.

Counselors could help university students benefit from attending to, appreciating, and attaining life’s positives (Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009) and from enhancing the strength and frequency of employing positive coping strategies through targeted psychoeducational or counseling interventions. Teaching university students active coping strategies, such as positive reframing and how to access emotional support, could help them cope with adverse situations. Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2006) indicated that practicing gratitude helps people to cope with negative situations because it enables them to view such situations through a more positive lens. Among university students, healthy coping strategies could buffer them from some of the unique challenges associated with acculturating and adjusting to college experiences (Jardin et al., 2018), especially during a pandemic.

Limitations and Directions for Future Research

The findings of this study should be considered in light of certain limitations. Foremost among these is that data were collected using self-report measures, and in the case of the PERMA-Profiler, data were collected using the retrospective recall of participants as they considered their well-being prior to the onset of COVID-19. Retrospective recall may be inaccurate (Gilbert, 2007) with participants under- or overestimating their well-being. Given the ongoing repercussions of the pandemic, we recommend continued and longitudinal studies on well-being, coping strategies, and PsyCap. Additionally, data collection methods and sample demographics would likely limit generalizability. We utilized a correlational cross-sectional study design; therefore, although PsyCap was predictive of change in well-being before and during COVID-19, neither causation nor directionality can be assumed. In future, researchers may wish to  investigate whether PsyCap predicts longitudinal changes in well-being in the COVID-19 context.

A further consideration is that the PERMA model of well-being (Seligman, 2011) may not be associated with similar outcomes for people of other cultures and backgrounds during COVID-19. Future researchers examining well-being in university students in different regions of the country or internationally may wish to further investigate the applicability of the PERMA model as a measure of university students’ well-being during the pandemic. Finally, the moderate Cronbach’s alpha reliability scores of < .70 (Field, 2013) for the subscales of the Brief COPE inventory and the engagement subscale of the PERMA-Profiler are of concern, which has also been expressed by prior researchers (Goodman et al., 2018; Iasiello et al., 2017). Future researchers should consider issues of internal consistency as they choose scales and interpret results.


To conclude, the present findings contribute to existing literature on PsyCap and well-being, using the PERMA model of well-being (Seligman, 2011) among university students in the United States in the context of COVID-19. Key findings are that the optimism, hope, and resilience dimensions of PsyCap are significant predictors of well-being, explaining a large amount of variance, with adaptive coping being conducive to flourishing. Further, the present findings highlight the importance of examining the relationships between each element of well-being and with each HERO dimension. Both individual counseling and group-based programming focused on PsyCap and positive coping strategies could support the well-being of university students as they experience ongoing stressors related to the pandemic or as they face other setbacks.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.



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Priscilla Rose Prasath, PhD, MBA, LPC (TX), is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Peter C. Mather, PhD, is a professor and department chair at Ohio University. Christine Suniti Bhat, PhD, LPC, LSC (OH), is a professor and the interim director of the George E. Hill Center for Counseling & Research at Ohio University. Justine K. James, PhD, is an assistant professor at University College in Kerala, India. Correspondence may be addressed to Priscilla Rose Prasath, 501 W. Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard, Durango Building, University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, TX 78207, priscilla.prasath@utsa.edu.

Mental Health Equity of Filipino Communities in COVID-19: A Framework for Practice and Advocacy

Christian D. Chan, Stacey Diane Arañez Litam


The emergence and global spread of COVID-19 precipitated a massive public health crisis combined with multiple incidents of racial discrimination and violence toward Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. Although East Asian communities are more frequently targeted for instances of pandemic-related racial discrimination, multiple disparities converge upon Filipino communities that affect their access to mental health care in light of COVID-19. This article empowers professional counselors to support the Filipino community by addressing three main areas: (a) describing how COVID-19 contributes to racial microaggressions and institutional racism toward Filipino communities; (b) underscoring how COVID-19 exacerbates exposure to stressors and disparities that influence help-seeking behaviors and utilization of counseling among Filipinos; and (c) outlining how professional counselors can promote racial socialization, outreach, and mental health equity with Filipino communities to mitigate the effects of COVID-19.

Keywords: Asian American, Filipino, mental health equity, COVID-19, discrimination


     Asian Americans represent the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States (Budiman et al., 2019). Following the global outbreak of COVID-19, many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) have experienced a substantial increase in race-based hate incidents. These incidents of racial discrimination have included verbal harassment, physical attacks, and discrimination against Asian-owned businesses (Jeung & Nham, 2020), which multiply the harmful effects on psychological well-being and life satisfaction among AAPIs (Litam & Oh, 2020). According to Pew Research Center trends (Ruiz et al., 2020), about three in 10 Asian adults reported they experienced racial discrimination since the outbreak began. Proliferation of anti-Chinese and xenophobic hate speech from political leaders, news outlets, and social media, which touted COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” further exacerbate instances of race-based discrimination (U.S. Department of Justice, 2020) and echo the Yellow Peril discourse from the late 19th century (Litam, 2020; Poon, 2020).

Although the community is often aggregated, Asian Americans are not a monolithic entity (Choi et al., 2017; Jones-Smith, 2019; Sue et al., 2019). The term Asian American encompasses over 40 distinct subgroups, each with distinct languages, cultures, beliefs, and migration histories (Pew Research Center, 2013; Sue et al., 2019). It is no surprise, therefore, that specific ethnic subgroups would be more affected by the pandemic than others. For example, instances of COVID-19–related racial discrimination disproportionately affect East Asian communities, specifically Chinese migrants and Chinese Americans. An analysis of nearly 1,500 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents indicated approximately 40% of Chinese individuals reported experiences of discrimination as compared to 16% of Korean individuals and 5.5% of Filipinos (Jeung & Nham, 2020). Although Chinese individuals disproportionately experience overt forms of COVID-19–related discrimination, Filipino migrants and Filipino Americans are not immune to the deleterious effects of the pandemic.

With over 4 million people of Filipino descent residing in the United States (Asian Journal Press, 2018), it is of paramount importance for professional counselors to recognize how the Filipino American experience may compound with additional COVID-19 exposure and related stressors in unique ways that distinctively impact their experiences of stress and mental health. The current article identifies how the racialized climate of COVID-19 influences Filipino-specific microaggressions and the presence of systemic and institutional racism toward Filipino communities. The ways in which COVID-19 exacerbates existing racial disparities across social determinants of health, help-seeking behaviors, and utilization of counseling services are described. Finally, the implications for counseling practice and advocacy are presented in ways that can embolden professional counselors to promote racial socialization, outreach, and health equity with Filipino communities to mitigate the effects of COVID-19.

Health Disparities Among Filipino Americans

The unprecedented emergence of COVID-19 has affected the global community. As of January 5, 2021, a total of 21,382,296 cases were confirmed and 362,972 deaths had been reported in the United States (Worldometer, n.d.). Although information about how racial and ethnic groups are affected by the pandemic is forthcoming, emerging data suggests that specific groups are disproportionately affected. Professional counselors must be prepared to support communities that may be more vulnerable to pandemic-related stress and face challenges related to medical and mental health care access because of intersecting marginalized identities, such as age, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual identity, social class, and migration history (Chan & Henesy, 2018; Chan et al., 2019; Litam & Hipolito-Delgado, 2021). For example, the AAPI population may be especially in need of mental health support because of ongoing xenophobic sentiments from political leaders that combine with intergenerational trauma, racial discrimination, and racial trauma (Litam, 2020).

Underutilization of Mental Health Services
     Compared to other Asian American subgroups, Filipinos are the least likely to seek professional mental health services. In a study of 2,230 Filipinos, approximately 73% had never used any type of mental health service and only 17% sought help from friends, community members, peers, and religious or spiritual leaders (Gong et al., 2003). Since the Gong et al. (2003) study, a multitude of researchers have documented the persistent disparity of mental health usage and unfavorable attitudes toward professional help-seeking among Filipinos (David & Nadal, 2013; David et al., 2019; Nadal, 2021; Tuazon et al., 2019), despite high rates of psychological distress (Martinez et al., 2020).

     The experiences of Filipino communities uniquely influence aspects of mental health and wellness. Compared to other subgroups of Asian Americans, Filipino Americans with post-traumatic stress experiences tend to exhibit poorer health (Kim et al., 2012; Klest et al., 2013), and report higher rates of racial discrimination (Li, 2014). As a subgroup, Filipino Americans present to mental health counseling settings with high rates of depression, suicide, HIV, unintended pregnancy, eating disorders, and drug use (David et al., 2017; Klest et al., 2013; Nadal, 2000, 2021). Compared to other Asian subgroups, Filipinos may experience lower social class and employment statuses, which may increase the prevalence of mental health issues (Araneta, 1993). Among Filipinos, intergenerational cultural conflicts and experiences of racial discrimination were identified as significant contributors to depression and suicidal ideation (Choi et al., 2020). The underutilization of professional mental health services and help-seeking among Filipino communities is unusual because of their familiarity with Western notions, systems, and institutions, which surface as traits that are typically associated with mental health help-seeking within the broader AAPI community (Abe-Kim et al., 2002, 2004; Shea & Yeh, 2008).

Distinct Experiences of Oppression
     Aspects of Filipino history are characterized by colonization, oppression, and intergenerational racial trauma (David & Nadal, 2013) and have been rewritten by White voices in ways that communicate how America saved the Philippines from Spanish rule through colonization (Ocampo, 2016). These sentiments remain deeply entrenched within the mindset of many Filipinos in the form of colonial mentality (David & Nadal, 2013; Tuazon et al., 2019). Colonial mentality refers to the socialized and oppressive mindset characterized by beliefs about the superiority of American values and denigration of Filipino culture and self (David & Okazaki, 2006a, 2006b). Colonial mentality is the insidious aftermath galvanized through years of intergenerational trauma, U.S. occupation, and socialization under White supremacy (David et al., 2017). Professional counselors must recognize the interplay between colonial mentality and the mental health and well-being of Filipino clients to best support this unique population.

The internalized experiences of oppression perpetuate the denigration of Filipinos by Filipinos as a result of the internalized anti-Black sentiments and notions of White supremacy that remain at the forefront of American history (Ocampo, 2016). The Filipino experience is one that is characterized by forms of discrimination by individuals who reside both within and outside of the Filipino community (Nadal, 2021). For example, Filipinos who espouse a colonial mentality disparage those with Indigenous Filipino traits (i.e., dark skin and textured hair) as unattractive, undesirable, and worthy of shame (Angan, 2013; David, 2020; Mendoza, 2014). Filipinos also experience a sense of otherness within the AAPI community and from other communities of color because their history, culture, and phenotype combine in ways that “break the rules of race” (Ocampo, 2016, p. 13). Although Filipinos are sometimes confused with individuals from Chinese communities, they are not typically perceived as Asian or East Asian (Lee, 2020) and are often mistaken for Black or Latinx (Ocampo, 2016; Sanchez & Gaw, 2007). These pervasive experiences render the Filipino identity invisible (Nadal, 2021). Ultimately, Filipinos remain among the most mislabeled and culturally marginalized of Asian Americans (Sanchez & Gaw, 2007). Professional counselors who work with Filipino clients must obtain a deeper understanding of how these unique experiences of invisibility and colonial mentality continue to affect the minds and the worldviews of Filipinos and Filipino Americans.

Risk Factors for COVID-19 Exposure
     The burgeoning rate of COVID-19 cases has devastated hospitals and medical settings. The overwhelming strain faced by medical communities uniquely affects Filipino migrants and Filipino Americans who are overrepresented in health care and disproportionately at risk of COVID-19 exposure (National Nurses United, 2020). The overrepresentation of Filipinos in health care, particularly within the nursing profession, is directly tied to the history of U.S. colonization. Following the U.S. occupation of the Philippines from 1899 to 1946, the Filipino zeitgeist became imbued with profound cultural notions of American superiority and affinity for Westernized attitudes, behaviors, and values (David et al., 2017). For example, the introduction of the American nursing curricula by U.S. Army personnel during the Spanish-American war (McFarling, 2020) instilled pervasive cultural influences that positioned the nursing profession as a viable strategy to escape political and economic instability in pursuit of a better life in the United States (Choy, 2003). These cultural notions have culminated to make the Philippines the leading exporter of nurses in the world (Choy, 2003; Espiritu, 2016). Of the immigrant health care workers across the United States, an estimated 28% of registered nurses, 4% of physicians and surgeons, and 12% of home health aides are Filipinos (Batalova, 2020). About 150,000 registered nurses in the United States are Filipino, equating to about 4% of the overall nursing population (McFarling, 2020; National Nurses United, 2020). According to the National Nurses United (2020) report, 31.5% of deaths among registered nurses and 54% of deaths among registered nurses of color were Filipinos. Based on these statistics, Filipinos face disproportionate exposure to pandemic-related stressors and death that may increase the risk for mental health issues.

Individuals of Filipino descent may also face significant COVID-19–related challenges, as they are predisposed to several health conditions that have been linked with poorer treatment prognosis and outcomes (Ghimire et al., 2018; Maxwell et al., 2012). Compared to other racial and ethnic subgroups, Filipinos residing in California had higher rates of type II diabetes, asthma, and cardiovascular disease (Adia et al., 2020). High rates of hypertension, cholesterol, and diabetes were also noted in studies of Filipino Americans residing in the greater Philadelphia region (Bhimla et al., 2017) and in Las Vegas, Nevada (Ghimire et al., 2018). One study of Filipinos residing in the New York metropolitan area indicated rates of obesity significantly increased the longer Filipino immigrants resided in the United States (Afable et al., 2016). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021) associated each of these underlying medical conditions with a greater likelihood for hospitalization, intensive care, use of a ventilator, and increased mortality. Filipino Americans also tend to report lower social class and employment statuses as compared to other Asian Americans, which may contribute to higher rates of mental health issues and create barriers to health care access (Adia et al., 2020; Sue et al., 2019).

Cultural Barriers to Professional Mental Health Services
     Filipinos face culturally rooted barriers to seeking professional mental health services that may include fears related to reputation, endorsement of fatalistic attitudes, religiousness, communication barriers, and lack of culturally competent services (Gong et al., 2003; Nadal, 2021; Pacquiao, 2004). The presence of mental illness stigma is also deeply entrenched within Filipino communities (Appel et al., 2011; Augsberger et al., 2015; Tuazon et al., 2019). In many traditional Filipino families, mental illness is mitigated by addressing personal and emotional problems with family and close friends, and through faith in God (David & Nadal, 2013). Rejection of mental illness is based on the belief that individuals who receive counseling or therapy are crazy, dangerous, and unpredictable (de Torres, 2002; Nadal, 2021).

Connection and Kinship
     Given the central prominence of family, it is no surprise that Filipino individuals’ mental health begins to suffer when their connection to community and kinship is compromised. Although relatively few studies on Filipino mental health exist, Filipinos and Filipino Americans consistently report family-related issues as among the most stressful. In one study of Filipino and Korean families in the Midwest (N = 1,574), the presence of intergenerational family conflict significantly contributed to an increase in depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation (Choi et al., 2020). In another study of Filipino Americans, quality time with family, friends, and community was identified as an important factor in mitigating the effects of depression (Edman & Johnson, 1999). The centralized role of Filipino families uniquely combines with a group mentality in ways that may additionally hinder rates of professional help-seeking.

Hiya and Amor Propio
     Notions of hiya and amor propio each represent culturally specific barriers to seeking mental health care. According to Gong and colleagues (2003), hiya and amor propio are related to the East Asian notions of saving face. While hiya emphasizes the more extensive experience of shame that arises from fear of losing face, amor propio is associated with concepts of self-esteem linked to the desire to maintain social acceptance. A loss of amor propio would result in a loss of face and may compromise the cherished position of community acceptance (Gong et al., 2003). Filipino Americans may thus avoid seeking professional mental health services because of combined feelings of shame (hiya) linked to beliefs that one has failed or is unable to overcome their problems independently, and fears of losing social positioning within one’s community (amor propio). To experience amor propio would put a Filipino—or worse, their family—at risk for tsismis, or gossip. Indeed, avoiding behaviors that may lead others within the Filipino community to engage in tsismis about the client or their family is a significant factor that guides choices and behaviors. Engaging in behaviors that result in one’s family becoming the focus of tsismis is considered highly shameful and reprehensible among Filipino communities.

Bahala Na
     The Tagalog term bahala na refers to the sense of optimistic fatalism that characterizes the shared experiences of many Filipinos and Filipino Americans. Bahala na can be evidenced through Filipino cultural expectations to endure emotional problems and avoid discussion of personal issues. This core attitude may have deleterious effects on mental health and help-seeking, as many Filipinos are socialized to deny or minimize stressful experiences or to simply endure emotional problems (Araneta, 1993; Sanchez & Gaw, 2007). A qualitative analysis of 33 interviews and 18 focus groups of Filipino Americans indicated bahala na may combine with religious beliefs to create additional barriers to addressing mental health problems (Javier et al., 2014). For example, virtuous and religious Filipinos and Filipino Americans may endorse bahala na attitudes by believing their higher power has instilled purposeful challenges that can be overcome by sufficient faith and endurance (Javier et al., 2014).

Hindi Ibang Tao
     Moreover, many Filipinos and Filipino Americans demonstrate hesitance to trust individuals who are considered outsiders. When interactions with those considered other cannot be avoided, traditional Filipinos tend to be reticent, conceal their real emotions, and avoid disclosure of personal thoughts, needs, and beliefs (Pasco et al., 2004). Filipino community members place a large value on in-group versus out-group members and largely prefer to seek support from helping professionals within the Filipino community, rather than from others outside of the group (Gong et al., 2003). Individuals who are hindi ibang tao (in Tagalog, “one of us”) are differentiated from those who are ibang tao (in Tagalog, “not one of us”), which influences interactions and amount of trust given to health care providers (Sanchez & Gaw, 2007). White counselors may be able to bridge the cultural gap with Filipino clients to become hindi ibang tao by exhibiting respect, approachability, and a willingness to consider the specific influences of Filipino history and the importance of family (Sanchez & Gaw, 2007). Professional counselors who overlook, minimize, or disregard these cultural values risk higher rates of early termination and may experience their Filipino clients as exhibiting little emotion (Nadal, 2021). Filipino clients who are not yet comfortable with professional counselors may interact in a polite, yet superficial manner because culturally responsive relationships and trust have not been developed (Gong et al., 2003; Pasco et al., 2004; Tuazon et al., 2019).

Pakikisama and Kapwa
     Another Filipino cultural barrier is pakikisama, or the notion that when one belongs to a group, one should be wholly dedicated to pleasing the group (Bautista, 1999; Nadal, 2021). Filipino core values extend beyond the general notion of collectivism and include kapwa, an Indigenous worldview in which the self is not distinguished from others (David et al., 2017; Enriquez, 2010). Thus, Filipinos do not solely act in ways that benefit the group; they are also expected to make decisions that please other group members, even at the expense of their own desires, needs, or mental health (Nadal, 2021). The cultural notions of pakikisama and kapwa interplay with amor propio in ways that have detrimental effects on Filipinos in dire need of mental health support. For example, a second-generation Filipino American may recognize that their suicidal thoughts and experiences of depression may be worthy of mental health support, but recognition of cultural mistrust toward those deemed other may risk their family’s social acceptance (amor propio). Risking the family’s social acceptance could ultimately violate group wishes (pakikisama) and may subject their family to stigma and gossip (tsismis).

Implications for Practice and Advocacy in Professional Counseling

The COVID-19 pandemic and increased visibility to discrimination against Asian Americans illuminates the importance of addressing the presence of mental health barriers among Filipino communities. Filipino communities face complex barriers rooted in colonialism, racism, and colorism that negatively affect their overall mental health (David & Nadal, 2013; Tuazon et al., 2019; Woo et al., 2020). The combination of educational, health, and welfare disparities culminate in poorer health outcomes for Filipino American communities compared to other ethnic Asian groups (Adia et al., 2020). Many of these identifiable barriers and forces of oppression increase the racial trauma narratives incurred among Filipino communities (David et al., 2017; Klest et al., 2013); deny the impact of microaggressions and discrimination (Nadal et al., 2014); divest resources that support economic, educational, and social well-being (Nadal, 2021; Smith & Weinstock, 2019); and discourage the utilization of needed counseling spaces (Tuazon et al., 2019).

Cultivating cultural sensitivity in health care providers can buffer the psychological toll and emotional consequences of negative health care encounters for historically marginalized communities (Flynn et al., 2020), including Filipinos. Findings associated with health equity and help-seeking behaviors (e.g., Flynn et al., 2020; Ghimire et al., 2018) have significant ramifications for Filipino communities that face a litany of barriers to counseling services (Gong et al., 2003; Tuazon et al., 2019). In light of COVID-19, professional counselors are encouraged to employ culturally responsive interpersonal and systemic interventions that promote the sustainable mental health equity of Filipino communities.

Promoting Racial Socialization and Critical Consciousness
     Reducing barriers for mental health access is connected to protective factors, actions, and cultural capital instilled across generations of Filipino communities (David et al., 2017). Filipino communities draw from several generations of colonization, which continues to affect second-generation Filipinos living in the United States (David & Okazaki, 2006a, 2006b). Experiences of historical colonization, forced assimilation into other cultures, and the erasure of Filipino cultural values have resulted in a range of Eurocentrically biased and historically oppressive experiences (Choi et al., 2020; David & Nadal, 2013). These experiences have prepared Filipino communities, intergenerationally and collectively, to respond to experiences of discrimination in ways that preserve their cultural values (David et al., 2017). The preservation of Filipino cultural values across generations has bolstered a type of protective factor through racial socialization, where parents and families teach future generations of children about race and racism (Juang et al., 2017). Ultimately, preparing future generations of Filipinos to respond to racial oppression can protect cultural assets (David et al., 2017). In fact, a study by Woo and colleagues (2020) indicated Filipino parents who prepared their children to respond to racial discrimination prepared them for bias and strengthened their ethnic identity.

One strategy that professional counselors can use to infuse social justice in their work is to help Filipino clients raise their critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is an approach that helps clients to recognize the systemic factors contributing to their barriers with mental health utilization and mental health stressors (David et al., 2019; Diemer et al., 2016; Ratts & Greenleaf, 2018; Seider et al., 2020) and to feel empowered to take part in action (Ratts et al., 2016; Watts & Hipolito-Delgado, 2015). Professional counselors can raise Filipino clients’ critical consciousness by engaging in conversations about how the history of colonization, endorsement of colonial mentality, and systemic factors continue to marginalize Filipinos (David et al., 2019). Connecting critical consciousness to COVID-19, professional counselors can highlight how public anti-Asian discourse echoes centuries of oppression and leads to cultural mistrust of health care providers, particularly professional counselors (Litam, 2020; Ratts & Greenleaf, 2018; Tuazon et al., 2019). Similarly, professional counselors can raise the critical consciousness of Filipino clients by discussing the effects of race-based trauma and racial violence as a result of COVID-19 (Litam, 2020; Nadal, 2021). Including these topics during counseling can be instrumental for detecting the effects of race-based trauma, such as somatic symptoms, while grasping the manifestation of pandemic stress (Taylor et al., 2020). As health care providers focus predominantly on wellness, professional counselors play a significant part in deconstructing the connections and nuances among race-based traumatic stress and pandemic stress (Ratts & Greenleaf, 2018).

Additionally, professional counselors can raise the critical consciousness of Filipino clients by examining the intersection of underlying health disparities, Filipino core values, and overrepresentation of Filipinos working in health care positions during COVID-19 through a trauma-informed lens. Aligned with this perspective, professional counselors can identify and discuss how intergenerational trauma narratives may have persisted across generations of Filipino communities (David & Okazaki, 2006b; David et al., 2019; Nadal, 2021; Tuazon et al., 2019) in ways that have adverse effects on mental health. For example, professional counselors may support Filipino clients to critically reflect on how socialized messages from parents and elders with intergenerational trauma may have contributed to the internalization of colonial mentality. Professional counselors may also broach these cultural factors by promoting discussions within clients’ families and communities about the cultural preservation of Filipino identities (Choi et al., 2017, 2020; David et al., 2017).

Culturally Congruent Coping Responses Among Filipino Clients
     Professional counselors can help Filipino clients who seek counseling during COVID-19 by empowering them to engage in coping responses that cultivate their cultural assets and strengthen their ethnic identity (David et al., 2017, 2019; Woo et al., 2020). Before implementing these culturally sensitive strategies, professional counselors must reflect on whether they hold individualistic notions and Western attitudes about which coping responses are deemed helpful or unhelpful to mitigate the effects of racial discrimination (Oh et al., in press; Sue et al., 2019). Following experiences of racial discrimination and stress, Filipinos tend to use disengagement coping responses (Centeno & Fernandez, 2020; Tuason et al., 2007). Following an assessment of coping responses, professional counselors can support Filipino clients by reinforcing culturally responsive disengagement coping strategies, such as tiyaga (Tagalog for “patience and endurance”) and lakas ng loob (Tagalog for “inner strength and hardiness”), to promote resilience and demonstrate flexibility.

Given these central cultural values, professional counselors must be cautioned from solely using emotion-centered counseling strategies that center experiences of stress, racial trauma, or COVID-19–related discrimination (Litam, 2020). Instead, Filipino clients may benefit from interventions that draw from their cultural values of endurance (tiyaga) and inner strength (lakas ng loob) to refocus energy toward cultivating meaningful relationships and roles (David & Nadal, 2013; David et al., 2017). For example, Filipino clients who are concerned about the wellness of their community may experience a heightened sense of purpose and inner strength by reflecting on how their actions have already benefitted their families rather than focusing on their fears. Indeed, when stressful experiences occur, Filipinos have a long history of demonstrating resilience. Empowering Filipino clients to reflect on the historical ways that the Filipino community has evidenced resilience and inner strength may cultivate a strong sense of Filipino pride and strengthen ethnic identity as protective factors to mental health distress (Choi et al., 2020; David et al., 2019; Tuazon et al., 2019).

Filipinos may also benefit from engagement coping strategies, such as prayer, employing religious and spiritual resources, and responding with humor, to promote health and wellness (Nadal, 2021; Sanchez & Gaw, 2007). Counselors can help Filipino clients leverage engagement coping strategies by reflecting on existing responses to stress. Counselors may ask, “How have you intentionally responded to stressful events in the past?” and “How did these ways of coping impact your levels of stress?” Counselors can also demonstrate culturally sensitive strategies and lines of questioning that move from general, shared Filipino values to specific client experiences. For example, counselors can state: “Many Filipinos find peace of mind through prayer, religious practices, and humor. I’m wondering if this is true for you?” Because of the community orientation and collectivism embedded within Filipino culture, it may be helpful for counselors to elaborate on cultural contexts and relationships that inform coping strategies: “I am wondering how you may have seen some of these coping strategies in your home, family, or community. How might you have experienced a coping strategy like humor within your own community?” This statement communicates a familiarity with Filipino cultural values and creates an invitation for clients to explore their coping resources. 

Creating Outreach Initiatives and Partnerships
     For counselors placed in school and community settings, challenging the systemic effects of COVID-19 among Filipino communities necessitates community partnerships and integrated care settings to achieve health equity (Adia et al., 2019). Health equity initiatives call for two types of overarching efforts to sustain long-term benefits and changes. One aspect of health equity relates to developing community partnerships as a method to intentionally increase health literacy within the community (Guo et al., 2018). Increasing mental health literacy, including education about counseling services and a comprehensive approach to wellness, operates as a direct intervention to cultural and linguistic barriers that precede negative health care experiences (Flynn et al., 2020). Increasing mental health literacy in Filipino communities may also normalize the process of professional mental health services, challenge the cultural notion that those who seek mental health care are crazy, and offer strength-based language related to counseling services (Ghimire et al., 2018; Maxwell et al., 2012; Nadal, 2021). Expanding on recommendations by Tuazon and colleagues (2019), professional counselors can challenge the systemic effects of COVID-19 in Filipino communities by helping community stakeholders understand culturally responsive practices for seeking professional mental health services. Professional counselors employed in community settings can leverage opportunities to liaise with Filipino community organizations and leaders to increase the utilization of counseling services as a preventive method (Graham et al., 2018; Maxwell et al., 2012), especially in response to the increased mental health issues in Filipinos following COVID-19. Professional counselors employed in community settings are therefore uniquely positioned to broach cultural factors of colonialism and systemic racism while addressing the urgency of mental health services for Filipino communities during COVID-19 (Day-Vines et al., 2018, 2020).

Increasing Visibility of Filipino Counselors
     The second aspect of health equity initiatives focuses on increasing representation in the pipeline of providers. Although Flynn and colleagues (2020) documented the importance of culturally responsive practices to buffer negative health care experiences, public health scholars have generally identified that the representation of professional counselors is crucial for encouraging historically marginalized communities to seek services (Campbell, 2019; Graham et al., 2018; Griffith, 2018). According to Campbell (2019), historically marginalized clients are more likely to pursue services and demonstrate an openness to speak with professional counselors who are representative of their communities. In addition to increasing Filipino counselors and counselor educators in the pipeline (Tuazon et al., 2019), professional counselors can enact community-based initiatives that position Filipino leaders to support the larger Filipino community (Guo et al., 2018; Maxwell et al., 2012; Nadal, 2021). For example, professional counselors can train Filipino leaders and community members to share information about coping responses (e.g., mindfulness, yoga, and diaphragmatic breathing) that mitigate the deleterious effects of racism, colonialism, and COVID-19–related stress. Professional counselors can also work with community members to establish Filipino-led wellness groups that frame discussions about stress within the broader context of health and wellness. Assessing for previous assumptions about mental health literacy may be helpful to normalize group discussions about stress and mental health. As outreach initiatives and community partnerships are established within the context of COVID-19, professional counselors must consider how they develop marketing materials for counseling services that appropriately reflect the cultural and linguistic diversity of Filipinos and invite input from Filipino community leaders (Campbell, 2019; Graham et al., 2018).


The cumulative effects of colonialism and racism continue to influence the mental health and visibility of Filipino communities within the global crisis of COVID-19. Unlike other AAPI subgroups, experiences of pandemic-related distress in Filipinos are additionally compounded by their distinct history of colonization, cultural values, and low levels of help-seeking behaviors. Specific interventions for culturally responsive counseling and outreach for Filipino communities are critical (Choi et al., 2017; David & Nadal, 2013; David et al., 2017; Tuazon et al., 2019) and were outlined in this article. Professional counselors, especially those in community settings, have numerous opportunities to enact a systematic plan of action that integrates culture, health, and policy (Chan & Henesy, 2018; Nadal, 2021). These interventions illuminate a longstanding and never more urgent call to action for extending efforts and initiatives to increase the visibility of Filipino communities and support individuals of Filipino descent in counseling.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.



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Christian D. Chan, PhD, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Stacey Diane Arañez Litam, PhD, NCC, CCMHC, LPCC-S, is an assistant professor at Cleveland State University. Correspondence may be addressed to Christian D. Chan, Department of Counseling and Educational Development, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, P.O. Box 26170, Greensboro, NC 27402, cdchan@uncg.edu.