The mental health needs of college students have been at the forefront in recent years, as this is a population that may be susceptible to poor mental and emotional health. In fact, a recent study of college students attending 19 universities in eight different countries found that 19% of students experience depression within a given year, and a full 31% of students screen positive for at least one mental health condition. The stress, isolation, and change that came with COVID-19 made matters worse, with an estimated 37% of college students experiencing depression in the midst of the pandemic.
With mental health concerns on the rise in college students, experts, researchers, and practitioners have taken an interest in the factors that contribute to poor mental health in this population. The newest research explains some of the risk factors for depression, so that steps can be taken to promote mental wellness in college students. For those who do experience depression, effective treatments are available.
Depression and the Need to Belong in College Students
While there is no single cause of depression, mental health experts are pretty certain that social factors can contribute to the development of depressive symptoms. For instance, since social connection plays a role in wellbeing, people who feel lonely or isolated from others may be at increased risk of depression. College students are in a unique position, especially during the transition to college, because they are leaving home and attempting to establish new social connections on campus. They may feel isolated or struggle to transition and make new friends, which could make them more vulnerable to depression.
Given the link between social connection and depression, researchers writing for a 2022 publication of Psychological Science assessed whether feelings of belonging were related to depression among first-year college students. Study results revealed that lower levels of belonging were linked to higher levels of depression at the end of the academic term. The relationship between belonging and depression remained, even after controlling for other factors, like loneliness and the number of social interactions a person had. Furthermore, lower feelings of belonging were a warning sign for depression occurring months later.
Based upon these findings, it’s clear that humans have a need to belong. College students who are struggling with symptoms of depression may need assistance with integrating on campus. Joining clubs, intramural sports, or extracurriculars can be a helpful way of forming a sense of belonging. Ultimately, creating a sense of “being at home” on campus can help students to make the transition to college without experiencing as many mental health difficulties. It’s important to promote feelings of belonging early on, since lack of belonging is an early risk factor for depression.
What This Means for Treating Depression
Common treatment methods for depression include counseling, medication, or a combination of the two. While medication can be helpful for some people, what the findings on belonging and depression suggest is that college students may benefit from counseling or other interventions that help them to feel more at home. For instance, a type of counseling called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is commonly utilized in depression treatment. This modality helps people to change distorted or unhelpful ways of thinking and replace them with healthier thinking patterns.
College students who struggle with depression may benefit from working with a therapist who uses CBT approaches to help them think differently about how they fit in on campus. A student who feels as if they don’t belong can be directed to change their thinking and look for evidence that they do, in fact, fit in.
College students may also engage in self-help strategies to overcome depression symptoms. They might challenge themselves to think about times they did belong, and then attempt to re-create that experience on campus. If students felt at home during choir class in high school, for instance, they could consider joining the campus choir or taking a music class to feel that same sense of connection. It can also be helpful to decorate dorm rooms with items from home, to create a physical sense of being “at home.”
The Bottom Line on Depression and Belonging
College students who struggle with depression are likely to experience a lack of belonging. They may feel as if they do not fit in or are not at home on campus, which can understandably lead to feelings of depression. For students who struggle with finding their place on campus, there is support available. Some students may be able to increase their sense of belonging by joining activities on campus, whereas others may need additional support. Campus counseling centers are often available to provide services to students free of charge, and they are likely to be trained on evidence-based practices for college students, meaning they know what strategies work for this age group.
While counseling and/or medication is often an effective treatment modality for depression, some students may find that they do not experience alleviation of depression symptoms with these methods. If you are a college student living with treatment-resistant depression, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) may be a suitable add-on treatment option for you. TMS is a non-invasive treatment modality that uses a device that is placed against the head to deliver small pulses to areas of the brain responsible for mood.
TMS has been approved by the FDA, as it is both safe and effective, to treat cases of depression that do not respond to other treatment modalities. TMS sessions are typically just under 20 minutes in length, and you can return to your usual activities without restriction after an appointment. Pulse TMS offers this service to those in the Los Angeles area. Reach out to us today to learn more or to determine if you are a candidate for TMS.