Many college kids are depressed and anxious, especially when they are a minority on campus or the first in their family to go to a university, a new study finds.

These feelings may be particularly pronounced among minorities attending mostly white colleges, the researchers reported. In that setting, more than half of Black and Hispanic students reported feelings of mild depression and 17% more said they were moderately to severely depressed.

“College life has its own sets of challenges — during COVID there were high rates of depression and anxiety suggesting that social support is an important part of college life,” said lead researcher Janani Thapa. She is an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s School of Public Health in Athens.

“We must continue efforts on belonging, to make each and every student feel at home,” Thapa added.

Interestingly, the researchers found that students at mostly white universities reported similar anxiety levels, regardless of race, with more than 3 in 5 students saying they experienced mild to severe anxiety levels.

At historically Black colleges, students who weren’t Black also experienced higher rates of anxiety and depression.

For the study, Thapa and her colleagues collected data on more than 3,000 students during the pandemic who answered questions about feelings of hopelessness, sleep problems and lack of energy.

Thapa’s team found that students who were the first in their families to attend college were more likely to experience depression, compared with students who weren’t the first to study at a university. All first-generation students, in fact, said that they had some level of depression, regardless of the school.

Meanwhile, women suffered greater depression and anxiety levels than men, which is in line with the larger social pattern of mental health problems affecting women more intensely.

What leads to these feelings isn’t clear, Thapa said. Whether racism or being a recent immigrant adds to these feelings is something the researchers didn’t investigate, she noted.

Thapa, who was an international student herself, said she can relate to the stresses of settling in during the first semester in the United States. Being a first-generation student comes with its own challenges and opportunities, and it is important that university staff help address these challenges, she explained.

“College and campuses must continue supporting all students, with special emphasis on students who are in minority and first-generation students,” Thapa said. “Colleges need to provide social support and opportunities for students to receive mental health support.”

The report was published online recently in the Journal of American College Health.

One expert said mental health problems among college students are getting more attention now than in the past.

“The researchers are homing in on a topic that is getting attention from my colleagues in the psychology community with this specific population when there is a mental health crisis on college campuses,” said Laura Braider. She is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra, in Hempstead, N.Y.

This study builds on the concepts of attachment theory, the longest scientific study on happiness and many other studies that found relationships are the biggest predictors of a happy and healthy life, Braider said.

“It makes sense, if you think about it,” she added. “College students are encountering their first years of living independently while at the same time trying to develop a completely new set of relationships. This could provide so much hope.”

A sense of belonging has a calming effect on college students, Braider said.

“It adds a very holistic concept to college mental health. College campuses putting an emphasis on opportunities for peers to connect on campus and providing mentorship for these individual groups of students that we have identified to be at risk could be a game-changer,” Braider said. “Some schools have already begun to put some of these concepts into action and are seeing promising results.”

More information

For more on depression and anxiety, head to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Janani Thapa, PhD, associate professor, University of Georgia School of Public Health, Athens; Laura Braider, PhD, assistant professor, psychiatry, Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra, Hempstead, N.Y.; Journal of American College Health, July 24, 2023, online