Beginning college can be an exciting and difficult time for many people. It brings about a plethora of changes in environment, lifestyle, and relationships. A study published in Psychological Science explores how a sense of belonging can potentially be a protective factor against depression for college students.
In recent years, mental illness has increased in prevalence among young adults. Specifically, almost 20% of college freshman are diagnosed with depression annually. Social life can be a significant factor that has the potential to be either advantageous or detrimental to student’s mental health.
Belonging is an important feeling that involves the belief that one has support and community. This can be especially significant for college students, who are assimilating into a new community. This study attempts to better understand how a sense of belonging early in the academic year can affect depressive symptoms later in the term.
For their research, Janine M. Dutcher and colleagues utilized first-year full-time students from two American universities. All participants were between 18 and 25 years old. This study was separated into an exploratory study and two confirmatory studies. The number of participants in each sub-study ranged from 121 to 188.
All participants completed measures on feelings of belonging, depressive symptoms, sense of social fit, loneliness, social interactions, and demographics. Data collection spanned different weeks of the term for all studies and during data collection participants completed measures four times throughout the day.
Across all studies, a weaker sense of belonging early in the semester was associated with stronger depressive symptoms at the end of the academic term. This relationship was significant, even when controlling for factors such as loneliness, social interaction, and baseline depression levels.
This suggests that daily feelings of belonging may predict depression more than other factors, such as social life. This could be useful in tackling the high rates of depression for first-year college students, by fostering an environment that encourages belonging and community early on.
This study took steps into better understanding how feelings of belonging could be related to lower levels of depression. Despite this, there are some limitations to note. One such limitation is that data was collected during winter and spring terms. Since most people begin college in the fall, it would be useful to examine if the data was consistent for the fall term. Additionally, this study utilized first-year students at two universities; future research could utilize a more inclusive sample.
“Greater feelings of belonging, even early in an academic term, were associated with fewer depressive symptoms at the end of the academic term. Feelings of belonging predicted depressive symptoms over and above other social factors and baseline levels of depressive symptoms, and this effect was replicated across multiple data sets,” the researchers concluded.
“The implications of this work support theory and offer insight into potential ways to detect risk for depression in college students earlier. Furthermore, the strong link between feelings of belonging on a daily level and future depressive symptoms suggests important future work that could explore whether intervening on day-to-day belonging could have benefits for mental health.”
The study, “Lack of Belonging Predicts Depressive Symptomatology in College Students“, was authored by Janine M. Dutcher, James Lederman, Megha Jain, Stephen Price, Agam Kumar, Daniella K. Villalba, Michael J. Tumminia, Afsaneh Doryab, Kasey G. Creswell, Eve Riskin, Yasaman Sefdigar, Woosuk Seo, Jennifer Mankoff, Sheldon Cohen, Anind Dey, and J. David Creswell.