Research Reveals Ways to Improve Mental Health Support for First-Generation Students

Colleges can do more to help first-generation students address mental health challenges as they transition to campus life, an Ohio State University researcher says.

Pasha Sergeev, a doctoral candidate at OSU and a Pell Institute intern, singled out greater collaboration with K-12 education and increased family engagement as ways that colleges can improve their mental health support. During a Pell Institute webinar, they presented the findings of their 2022 research project on first-generation students and mental health.

Sergeev emigrated to the U.S. from Russia in the last decade and describes themself as a “double first-gen student” who was not only the first in their family to receive a university degree but was also new to the U.S. higher education system when they began graduate study here.

Their research looked at the health-seeking behaviors of first-generation undergraduate students to illuminate the role of families and communities in those students seeking mental health support. Sergeev’s study is in the Pell Institute’s fall 2023 Opportunity Matters Journal.

As first-generation students matriculate, stress and anxiety are common; they often experience financial pressures, conflict with family members, academic challenges, a lack of sense of belonging, and simple struggles to explore careers and understand campus procedures. And the stress can be multiplied by family attitudes toward mental health, Sergeev found.

Hosted by The Pell Institute of The Council for Opportunity in Education this webinar discusses the implications of Pasha Sergeev’s qualitative study exploring how first-generation undergraduate students participate in mental health help-seeking.
Watch it here

Students in Sergeev’s study revealed that their families skirted mental health issues, some conveying that it was a topic of shame or that those with mental health problems were to blame for their illnesses because they had internalized expectations by “the dominant society.”

Students from close-knit families often found the emphasis on individualism “startling” when they arrived on campus. Over time, they learned to tap their peers for support and to dig deep to find their inner resources. One of the biggest challenges, Sergeev said, was the struggle to balance their own needs and those of their families and communities: “How do I take care of myself without feeling I’m betraying or neglecting my family?”

Sergeev challenged institutions to become more mindful of the role of family attitudes in student mental health and personal development. And they said they should view student success as their study did, through the lens of student strengths and assets.

“I really think we need to rethink the notion of what is a successful student and the first-gen student coming in as being deficient,” Sergeev said. The students they studied entered college with demonstrable savvy, skills, and knowledge. “Talking and working with students and making them realize how much strength they have is important… coming from the place they come from,” they said.

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