The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

First Generation College Students: What Do We Know About Their Mental Health?

Friday, January 17, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
James L. Pease, PhD, Clinical Research Social Worker, VA Eastern Colorado Healthcare System, Denver, CO
Background and Purpose:

Evidence suggests the prevalence of depression and other mental health problems among college students in the U.S. is on the rise (Collins & Mowbray, 2005; Kadison & DiGeronimo, 2004; Soet & Sevig, 2007). Particular groups of college students, such as students with financial troubles, older students, sexual minorities, and women, have been shown to be at increased risk for mental health problems (e.g., Eisenberg, Gollust, Golberstein, & Hefner, 2007; Suicide Prevention Resource Center, 2004). One group of students who could potentially be at risk, but whose mental health outcomes have not been examined, is first generation college students (hereafter referred to as pioneers). Given the numerous stressors that pioneers often face (e.g., Orbe, 2004; Somers, Woodhouse, & Cofer, 2004), a closer examination of mental health outcomes seems warranted to determine if being a pioneer constitutes a unique risk.  Specifically, this study examined whether there were differences in the prevalence and severity of depression and anxiety between pioneers and non-first generation college students. Acculturative stress was used as a theoretical framework for why pioneers may screen higher in prevalence and severity of mental health outcomes. 


Multiple linear regression and multinomial logistic regression analyses were employed to investigate the prevalence and severity of depression and anxiety in a sample of undergraduate college students (n = 6,449) who participated in the web-based, 2011 Healthy Minds Study. Participants were 18-22 year old college students drawn from 15 colleges and universities throughout the United States.  Generational status was defined according to three categories: a) pioneers (first generation college students) are students where neither parent attended college, b) partial legacy are students where at least one parent attended but did not graduate from college, and c) legacy students are students where at least one parent graduated from college or university.  Depression and anxiety were measured using the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ) Depression Module and Anxiety Module, which are validated screening instruments.  


The results revealed that pioneers did not screen higher in prevalence or severity of depression or anxiety than legacy students. However, partial legacy students screened higher for prevalence of anxiety, severity of anxiety, and prevalence of minor depression than legacy students.  These results were also significant when partial legacy students were combined with pioneers.   


Implications of these findings are that colleges and universities should be aware that partial legacy students may be at risk for mental health problems–a group that has not been previously identified as at risk. Further implications point to the possibility that pioneers who attend college may represent a more resilient group of students. Limitations include the lack of stratification of generational status by year in school, the limitations of the outcome measures, the overall variance explained by the model, the subjective measure of financial situation, and restricting the sample age range from 18–22.  Future research could include measures of resiliency and acculturative stress when examining mental health outcomes by generational status.