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Identity integration in college students with severe mental illness: An extension of theory and a review of literature

18 April 2003


In recent years increasing numbers of young adults with severe and persistent mental illness have pursued college education. In addition to the typical challenges faced by the adolescent transitioning into young adulthood, the severely mentally ill college student might also have to develop and integrate an identity as a person with mental illness while simultaneously negotiating the new role as a young adult college student fitting into this new and unique social environment. An extensive literature exists for college student identity development in relation to multiple aspects of diversity. More recently, important attention has been directed to the lived experiences of individuals with severe mental illness. However, there is an absence of literature and theory that describes severe mental illness in terms of identity development. This paper reviews and synthesizes literature on ego identity development theories in young adults, with special attention to models of identity development in ethnic/racial and sexual minority groups, to propose a model of identity integration in college students with severe mental illness. This model is visually conceptualized as two dynamic, eclipsing circles. A model of identity integration in college students with severe mental illness introduces several important assumptions that are supported by the above literature review: (1) college students with severe mental illness manage both personal and social identities, and these identities are influenced by internal and external factors; (2) identity integration is an eclipsing process and college student and mentally ill aspects of identity become more or less foreground in response to intrapersonal and environmental dynamics; (3) identity integration is dynamic and the rejection of one or both identities is a healthy, creative adjustment to internal and/or external needs or resources; and (4) integration is only "problematic" or "unhealthy" when integration ceases shifting, when either or both identities become rigid and fixed, or when there is a discrepancy or incongruity between the needs of the individual and environmental context.


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