Married BYU students report less stress than unwed classmates, BYU study says

Married BYU students report less stress than unwed classmates, BYU study says. (File photo: KUTV)

If you're a student at Brigham Young University without a spouse, you may be experiencing more stress than your married classmates, according to findings from students with BYU's School of Social Work.

A poster spotted around BYU campus is posing this question:

Do unmarried BYU students report greater distress than their married classmates?

The conclusions from the authors of the project say "yes," but not necessarily for the entire student-body population.

2News reached out to BYU School of Social Work's David Wood, Ph.D. who supervised what he says was a "program evaluation project" by two students, Emily Blackhurst, CSW and Joel Wallis.

Wood says data used in the study focused only on students who were seeking treatment at the BYU Comprehensive Clinic between 2008-2016.

The samples used consisted of 140 BYU students; 65 of whom were married, 75 who were not (more on the methodology in a bit).

The study arrived at the following two conclusions:

  • "Unmarried students at BYU report greater levels of distress than their married counterparts at the onset of therapy."
  • "Marriage is a protective factor, providing support for spouses as they face challenges in life."

The study's authors provided the following clinical implications as a result of their findings:

  • Clinicians working with unmarried clients must identify strong and stable interpersonal relationships that can provide support.
  • Clinicians must identify and bolster other protective factors, such as resilience or emotional competence that can aid students dealing with stress

So, how did the study's authors arrive at those conclusions?

It's a matter of the background information used by students in the study, as well the methodology used to arrive at "Initial Distress Scores by Marital Status."

First, let us examine the background used by students to justify the study, which includes a quote from NFL Hall of Fame quarterback, and BYU graduate Steve Young.

In 1996, Young told 60 Minutes the following when asked what it felt like to be "a 34-year-old single Mormon:"

You want to talk about the pressure I feel? Brigham Young once said that anyone over 27 years of age that's not married is a menace to society. So here's my [great-great-great] grandfather telling me to get with it. You don't think I feel the pressure? I guarantee it.

2News asked Blackhurst what gave her and Wallis the idea to pose the question in the first place. Blackhurst told 2News:

To be completely honest, this question blossomed from a joke between the two of us. Joel was a firm believer that his experience as a married student brought added stresses that single students didn't have to navigate; the financial pressure of supporting a family, finding housing in Provo, preparing for children, etc. I, somewhat facetiously, took the stance that being a single student at BYU had far superior stresses; uncomfortable dates, eternal salvation... you get the gist.

Under Wood's supervision, Blackhurst and Wallis posed the following background bullet points, some with sources, to justify the project:

  • "Individuals face a higher frequency of stressful life events during their college years (Anders, 2012)"
  • "Unmarried students were more likely to withdraw or consider withdrawing from classes as well as experience greater stress and anxiety when compared to their married classmates (Coombs, 1982)."
  • "Unmarried individuals are less likely to have strong social supports that they can rely [on] when experiencing stress."
  • "Married individuals experience less pathology as they have the support of spouses who provide interpersonal closeness, gratification, and support dealing with stresses (Coombs, 1991)."
  • "The LDS culture at BYU promotes marriage which can contribute to student distress"

It's well-known that BYU students often get married young, while still in school. When asked if she thinks pressure exists at BYU to get married, and if it contributes to the stress of unmarried students, Blackhurst said:

I think it's important to acknowledge the cultural pressure that exists when it comes to marriage at BYU. I definitely felt it. However, when I think about our conclusions, I do so with a grain of salt. Like Dr. Wood said, our sample size is incredibly small and it was not randomly selected. It's hard to make any real generalizations about BYU as a whole from our little study. In the end, being a college student anywhere is a stressful experience, whether you are married or not! We each have different stressors that we navigate and some of those will vary depending on our life situation. My biggest takeaway from this study is the significance of having close and caring relationships. We all need to feel true belonging and acceptance. For some people, that might be a marital partner, for others, it might not.

But is the study unscientific?

When asked that question, Wood said:

We teach scientific methods for use in program evaluation and understanding populations who seek services. I do not think it is accurate to call it 'unscientific.' It was not a random sample of the population, however. It was a convenience sample, so generalization to the broader population is limited to those seeking treatment at the BYU Comprehensive Clinic. And the sample is on the small side, which also warrants caution about making conclusions about the general population of BYU students.

The methodology states that "distress was self-reported" and that it used what's called the "Outcome Questionnaire 45 (OQ-45)," which measures three subscales, according to

  1. Symptom Distress (or subjective discomfort; intrapsychic functioning with an emphasis on depression and anxiety)
  2. Interpersonal Relations (loneliness, conflict with others and marriage and family difficulties)
  3. Social Role (difficulties in the workplace, school or home duties)

The initial distress scores by marital status were as follows (the higher the score, the higher the amount of distress):

  • Married students: 54.49
  • Unmarried students: 60.88

The project's results state: "P-value of 0.04306, below the established critical value of 0.05, and a Cohen's D value of 0.295 indicating a small but significant difference between groups."

It's important to note that 2News was unable to independently verify statistics used in this study, as private student health records were used.