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A New Way to Fight College Student Depression

A new study finds that "belonging" may protect against depression in students.

Key points

  • The feeling that one doesn’t belong may be especially pernicious for college students who are adolescents or young adults.
  • Students who don’t have a sense of belonging on their campus may feel like visitors or interlopers.
  • Research suggests that building a sense of belonging in students can positively affect academic performance and emotional well-being.
Sofia Alejandra/Pexels
Source: Sofia Alejandra/Pexels

Colleges and universities around the U.S. have struggled to respond to their students’ increasing need for mental health services.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of depression and anxiety were soaring among young people.

One recent international study found that approximately 19 percent of first-year college students across eight countries were diagnosed with depression within the previous year.

New research published in Psychological Science points to an important risk factor for college student depression: the feeling that one doesn’t belong.

A sense of belonging involves more than simply having social contacts. Belonging also goes beyond feeling supported by others or having close relationships. A college student could have a close group of friends on campus and spend a lot of time with those friends but still feel like they don’t belong at their college or university.

Belonging is about feeling valued by a group or institution. A student who doesn’t have a sense of belonging may feel like a “visitor” or interloper instead of an integrated, respected part of their college community.

The feeling that one doesn’t belong may be especially pernicious for college students who are adolescents or young adults. These students are in a critical time period for building social networks and often adjusting to living away from family for the first time.

To assess how belonging might influence rates of depression among college students, researchers conducted three longitudinal studies using a method called ecological momentary assessment (EMA). EMA involves assessing participants’ feelings or experiences in real-time, in their normal, everyday environments. In this new research, college students completed these assessments in response to notifications on their smartphones.

Several hundred first-year students (ages 18-25) from two different U.S. universities completed these brief assessments for a period of three weeks during an academic term (early-, mid-, and at the end of the term). For those three weeks, they were prompted to answer questions about their feelings and social interactions four times per day.

At the last time point each day, students rated their agreement with this statement: “Today, I feel like I belong at [school name].” At the beginning and end of the term, students completed measures of depression, loneliness, and their sense of how well they fit in at their school.

Rodne Productions/Pexels
Source: Rodne Productions/Pexels

The researchers found that students tended to get more depressed over the course of an academic term. This finding was consistent with previous research.

As academic terms progress, students struggle with increasing time pressure demands, academic stress, and lack of sleep–all of which can contribute to depression.

Students' scores on the measure of depression were quite high by the end of the academic term. In fact, students’ average score on this measure was beyond the threshold indicating risk for major depressive disorder.

In general, students' sense of belonging decreased over the academic term. Importantly, lower feelings of belonging predicted greater end-of-term depressive symptoms in students, even after controlling for their levels of depression at the beginning of the term.

The link between belonging and depression was consistent even when accounting for other related variables like a sense of academic fit, loneliness, or number of social interactions.

The authors found that simply having social interactions isn’t enough. In these studies, the number of social interactions students reported did not predict end-of-term depression. A sense of truly belonging at one’s college or university matters even if you have regular, positive interactions with friends at school.

Higher education administrators can take several important lessons from this research. Because students who struggle with a sense of belonging are more likely to develop depression, identifying these students early in the term to provide support or intervention could be an effective way to reduce rates of student depression.

Interventions for students with symptoms of depression could go beyond traditional approaches to include content specifically focused on building a sense of belonging. Several lines of research suggest that these types of interventions can positively affect academic performance and emotional well-being.

For example, one study evaluated a one-hour intervention for first-year college students that involved hearing stories from diverse older students about their transition to college. This belongingness intervention emphasized that it’s normal to experience challenges during the transition to college and that these experiences are temporary.

Further, the intervention communicated that these challenges don’t indicate that a student doesn’t belong at the college, but rather that they’re going through an experience common during the first-year transition. The intervention significantly improved both grades and well-being among Black students at a selective U.S. university. A similar intervention with a group of economically diverse college students found that a belongingness intervention decreased drop-out rates.

Stanley Morales/Pexels
Source: Stanley Morales/Pexels

In sum, this new research suggests a promising path for decreasing college students’ risk for depression.

Colleges and universities should work to communicate to their students that struggling with the transition to college isn’t a sign that one doesn’t belong at their school. Belongingness interventions are relatively easy to implement and could be integrated into students’ first-year seminars.

Depression is complex; a single causal factor will never completely explain it. But with so many college students struggling with depression, focusing on their sense of belonging can be one more tool for supporting campus mental health.

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