Carnegie Mellon University
October 18, 2022

A Dose of Belonging May Combat Depression

By Stacy Kish

Everyone wants to belong, and a new study at Carnegie Mellon University finds that first-year undergraduate students who have a strong sense of belonging on campus have a lower incidence of depression. The results were published in the June issue of the journal Psychological Science.

“In our ancestral environment, it was critical for survival to belong to a group,” said Janine Dutcher, a special faculty researcher in the Health and Human Performance Lab in the Department of Psychology at the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at CMU. Dutcher is the first author on the study. “Today it looks very different. Now we have access to so many people via social media, and yet you can still not feel like you are part of a group.” 

Belonging is a feeling established when a person has developed a sufficient number of social relationships and connections within a community. A feeling of belonging, a community or support network is particularly important during life transitions, like the first year of college.  

Today, almost 20% of students experience periods of depression, and the numbers are increasing. Depression not only affects a person’s health and well-being but it can negatively affect a student’s academic performance. The university provides the source for most social interactions for students and offers an ideal location to reach at-risk young adults with support services.

Dutcher and her colleagues conducted the first longitudinal study that examined how the sense of belonging at college affected the onset of depression later in the semester. The participants were recruited from two universities – one described as a highly selective, medium-size private institution in the mid-Atlantic region and one as a selective, large public institution on the West Coast of the United States.

The work was done with three studies. During each study, participants received text messages four times a day for three weeks. The studies were completed before the pandemic.

The researchers found that students who reported lower daily feelings of belonging had higher rates of end-of-term depression. They conclude that a sense of belonging offers a strong predictor for the onset of depressive symptoms over other social factors, like loneliness and frequency of social interaction.

This discovery was identified by Jimmy Lederman (DC 2022) during the data analysis process. In 2020 Lederman was a student in the Department of Statistics & Data Science. He joined the study’s data science team during the early days of the pandemic after another project he was hoping to gain research experience in was cancelled.

“I found the relationship between belonging and depression pretty early on in the analysis process,” said Lederman. “This experience sharpened my interest in methodology development for different application areas in the social sciences.”

Lederman wanted to see if this relationship he found was real, so he tested his hypothesis on other datasets that were not part of the initial analysis, strengthening the evidence for the link between belonging and depression. 

The results suggest a sense of belonging early in the academic term provides an important signal to identify and help at-risk students. According to Dutcher, the question is not if but when to intervene. If a lack of belonging can cause depressive symptoms that cascade through the semester, an early intervention could reap benefits throughout the school year.

“We are seeing a strong early signal that feeling like you belong on your college campus is important for your mental health, even weeks and months ahead of those mental health changes,” said David Creswell, William Dietrich II Chair Professor of Psychology at CMU and senior author on the study. “What this work suggests is a critical need for interventions that can help increase belonging and inclusivity across the academic semester.”

The study has several limitations. The work was only conducted at two universities with first-year students. Future work could approach these questions from a global perspective using a broader range of participants. In addition, future studies could try to establish the causal factors between a sense of belonging and the onset of depressive symptoms.

“We need to look at depression as a social condition rather than just brain chemistry,” said Dutcher. “It is important to let students know that developing a feeling of belonging may take time, but, with time, you can adjust and find friends that will allow you to be your authentic self on campus.”

Dutcher, Creswell and Lederman awere joined by Megha Jain, Stephen Price, Agam Kumar, Daniella K. Villalba, Kasey G. Creswell and Sheldon Cohen at CMU, Michael J. Tumminia at the University of Pittsburgh, Afsaneh Doryab at The University of Virginia, Eve Riskin, Yasaman Sefdigar and Jennifer Mankoff and Anind Dey at the University of Washington and Woosuk Seo at the University of Michigan on the article, titled “Lack of Belonging Predicts Depressive Symptomatology in College Students.” The study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.