College students’ sense of belonging related to mental health during the pandemic


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania — Among the many challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has presented to the higher education community, arguably one of the most severe is the toll on student mental health. Penn State researchers found that students’ sense of belonging to a higher education institution not only impacts their academic performance but may also protect them against anxiety and depression amid the global pandemic and a renewed racial awareness in the country.

“The global pandemic has really shed light on how academics and mental wellbeing are really connected, especially for a population like students,” said Maithrey Gopalan, Assistant Professor of Education (Education and Public Policy). “I think institutions need to think a lot more about what they’re doing to promote a sense of belonging for students and what effect that might have that goes way beyond academic achievement.”

in a new paper recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, “College Students’ Sense of Belonging and Mental Health Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Gopalan and colleagues at Penn State’s Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Center examine a key protective factor – students’ sense of belonging to their college – to understand how belonging varies overall and for major socio-demographic groups, including first generation (FG), racial/ethnic minority underrepresented (URM: Non-Hispanic, Hispanic, and Native Black) college students and freshmen (FY), amid COVID-19; and whether feelings of belonging protect students against mental health problems in college. Gopalan’s co-authors on the paper are Ashley Linden-Carmichael, assistant research professor of health and human development; and Stephanie Lanza, director of the C. Eugene Bennett Chair in Prevention and Professor of Biobehavioral Health. Linden-Carmichael and Lanza co-lead the PRCs Addictions and Innovative Methods Laboratory.

In their paper, Gopalan and colleagues report that studies have shown that students from URM and FG backgrounds report weaker belonging, which could negatively affect their mental health. Additionally, barriers to belonging may be higher for students transitioning to a new academic environment amid the global pandemic.

Belonging, according to the researchers, “can shield students from stress and help them engage more meaningfully in their educational experience.” Gopalan had previously studied belonging in the context of its relationship to academic achievement. In fact, a paper she co-authored which was published in 2020 and how academic institutions can foster belonging was recently recognized by the What works, as meeting “unqualified standards”. WWC is an unbiased team of methodologists within the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Educational Sciences that reviews research and determines which studies meet rigorous standards, and periodically summarizes their findings.

“(Studies) on belonging have always focused on academic achievement and on-campus integration,” Gopalan said. “I think the innovation in this (new) study is trying to connect (sense of belonging) with mental health symptoms.”

According to Gopalan, she and her colleagues were already investigating the dynamics of college students’ sense of belonging through surveys when the COVID-19 pandemic introduced a new twist to their research in the spring of 2020. They had administered a survey online about the college experiences of undergraduate students. students at a large public university in the northeast in November 2019. Shortly after the university switched to distance learning in March 2020 in response to the pandemic, researchers designed a follow-up survey to better understand changes in student experiences at their study site.

In addition to the turmoil caused by the pandemic, Gopalan said there was also a “race count” going on at the time in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement, a decentralized political and social movement that seeks to bring to light the racism, discrimination and inequalities experienced by black people. BLM, which started in 2013, returned to national headlines and gained more international attention during protests around the world in response to the May 2020 murder of George Floyd.

“Because we had their same sense of belonging before COVID, we were able to try to see if their sense of belonging changed during COVID and how that change happened for different students,” Gopalan said.

After analyzing data from a large longitudinal sample, researchers found no significant changes in students’ reports of belonging to their college amid the pandemic despite campus closures and social distancing mandates. However, Gopalan said students who said their institution welcomed them and felt like they belonged on campus before the pandemic began, “were those who reported lower depression and anxiety during COVID. “.

“Changes in student membership protected against depression amid the pandemic for all students, but especially for students at RRU, FG, and FY,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

However, Gopalan said, URM and FG students reported lower belonging than their peers before and during the pandemic. The researchers also found that greater belonging was negatively associated with adverse mental health effects such as depression and anxiety. However, she added, the link between a higher sense of belonging and reduced mental health symptoms was stronger for depression but less so for anxiety. One possible explanation, she added, is that “anxiety is sometimes more salient in a social context” and that norms of social distancing on campus amid the pandemic may have reduced the likelihood of social exclusion. .

“Similarly, students, particularly URM/FG/FY students, may also have been shielded from anxiety triggers due to exposure to a possibly safer online learning environment to which New students and students with stigmatized student identities are often exposed to college during non-pandemic times,” the researchers wrote.

Researchers plan to continue studying the dynamics of students’ sense of belonging on campus, Gopalan said. They plan to do daily surveys that ask students how they are feeling over several days, as well as examine the mechanisms that support students’ sense of belonging as well as mental health. She added that she is considering studies on psychosocial factors that affect students’ sense of belonging and on substance use during and beyond the pandemic.

The study received funding for survey administration from the Social Science Research Institute, the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, and the College of Health and Human Development.


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