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Navigating the College Mental Health Landscape: Underrepresented Students in Focus

Kook, Y., Le, T. P., Robey, N., & Raposa, E. B. (2023). Mental health and resource utilization among underrepresented students transitioning to college in the United States. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. Advance online publication.

Summarized by Saniya Soni

About the Study

Despite 35% of job openings requiring a bachelor’s degree, the American college system exhibits marked disparities, as students from underrepresented backgrounds face significantly lower college graduation rates compared to their more privileged peers. These disparities are attributed to a range of factors, including financial difficulties, the need to support family members at home, hostile institutional climates, exposure to discrimination, and other stressors documented in American colleges. Additionally mental health challenges contribute to college attrition, and these students often utilize formal mental health resources at lower rates. This study focuses on the mental health difficulties faced by underrepresented students (first-generation, low-income, and/or racial/ethnic minority) during their first semester at college in the United States. Researchers aimed to understand the barriers to mental health care utilization and provide insights for developing evidence-based policies and interventions to support student wellness and retention on college campuses.

Key Findings:

  • Underrepresented students were less likely to self-report a diagnosis of at least one psychiatric disorder compared to non-underrepresented students at baseline (16.79% vs. 27.27%).
    Both underrepresented and non-underrepresented students experienced significant increases in perceived stress levels from the beginning to the end of the semester.
  • Depressive symptoms significantly increased during the semester for underrepresented students but remained stable for non-underrepresented students.
  • Underrepresented students were less likely to plan to utilize counseling center services for emotional distress at the end of the semester compared to non-underrepresented students (54.2% vs. 66.8%).
  • Among those who utilized therapy or counseling during the first semester, both underrepresented and non-underrepresented students reported similar satisfaction ratings on various aspects of mental health services.

Implications for Mentoring

Colleges and universities should be attentive to potential barriers to formal mental health diagnosis and treatment for students from marginalized communities, and consider implementing brief screening tools to accurately identify mental health needs. Moreover, addressing negative attitudes and stigma surrounding mental health care is crucial for underrepresented students, necessitating culturally sensitive outreach and destigmatization of mental health resources. Training non-counseling staff to provide initial risk assessment and consultation, as well as enhancing culturally competent services, could improve mental health care utilization. Leveraging technology-delivered interventions and promoting awareness of available resources may also increase students’ intent to seek help. Ultimately, these findings have implications for mentoring, as mentors can play a crucial role in providing support and guiding underrepresented students in accessing mental health resources during their college transition.

To read the full study, click here.

To learn more about MentorPRO, which can improve college student mental health, click here.