Research shows that students of color and first-generation students face unique mental health challenges

Depression and anxiety among students is a growing public health problem. New research from the University of Georgia suggests the problem may be even worse for students who are not of the same race as most of their peers.

A new study found that non-majority students at a predominantly white college reported significantly higher rates of depression than their white peers.

At a predominantly white university, more than half of students who identified as a race other than white reported feelings of mild depression. An additional 17% said they suffered from moderate to severe depression.

All students at this predominantly white institution reported similar levels of anxiety, regardless of race, with more than three out of every five students saying they experienced mild to severe levels of anxiety.

At the historically black college, non-black students also experienced higher rates of anxiety and depression.

Our study adds to the evidence of how important work on inclusivity and mental health is in the college environment. It is important to keep in mind that not all students come with the same experience and we need to support them more.”

Janani Rajbhandari-Thapa, Associate Professor, UGA School of Public Health

First-generation students suffer from depression more often

More than 3,100 students participated in the study during the COVID-19 pandemic, answering questions about feelings of hopelessness, sleep problems and lack of energy, among other topics.

The researchers found that first-generation college students were also significantly more likely to experience depression compared to students who were not the first in their families to attend college.

All surveyed first-generation students stated that they had some level of depression, regardless of the institution. Most reported mild symptoms, but more than half at the predominantly white university said they had moderate to severe levels of depression.

“I was an international student myself, and I can somewhat relate to the stress of settling in during my first semester in the US,” Rajbhandari-Thapa said. “Being a first-generation college student and experiencing college for the first time in your family comes with its own set of challenges and opportunities, and it’s important that university faculty and staff work to address the challenges.

“There are on-the-job trainings and workshops, but we need to do more to help new students feel at home.”

Companionship, a sense of belonging helps protect against mental illness

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the daily lives of most Americans. Students are particularly hard hit.

Where they would normally socialize and participate in group activities, many were masked and socially distanced, preventing part of that integral interaction that strengthens social bonds. Additional causes of stress likely led to increased stress and anxiety, but the researchers suggest that not all groups were equally affected.

Female students, for example, were more severely affected by depression and anxiety than their male counterparts, reflecting a wider social pattern of mental health problems affecting women more intensely.

But researchers say investing in diversity, equity and inclusive resources can help students feel more at home on campus, regardless of their race or first-generation status.

“Belonging is so important,” Rajbhandari-Thapa said. “I don’t think there’s ever enough support for first-generation and minority students. Universities are already starting to do that, but it’s important that we provide as much support as possible.”

The study was published in the Journal of American College Health and was co-authored by Kathryn Chiang, Mitchell Chen Lee, Arial Treankler and Heather Padilla from the University of Georgia. Additional co-authors include Drs. Emily Anne Vall at Resilient Georgia and Marion Ross Fedrick at Albany State University.


Journal reference:

Rajbhandari-Thapaa, J., et al. (2023) Depression and anxiety among students at historically black and predominantly white universities during the COVID-19 pandemic: a cross-sectional study. Journal of American College Health.

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