First-Year First-Generation College Students' Mental Health and the Creation of a Social Capital Instrument

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Johns Hopkins University
Mental health concerns for college students have risen precipitously in the past decade and show no signs of abating in the near future. First-generation students are at higher risk of developing new or exacerbating existing mental health problems than continuing-generation students. Also of concern are first-year college students as this population reports increased rates of mental health problems in comparison to upperclassmen. As such, first-year first-generation college students are uniquely at risk for mental health problems. Both social capital and sense of belonging have been shown to impact mental health, and first-generation students report lower levels of both constructs in comparison to their continuing-generation student peers. While this study initially planned to implement an intervention aimed at increasing these constructs for first-year first-generation students, circumstances dictated a pivot to the development and testing of a new social capital instrument. Although there are a variety of social capital instruments available, the originally planned intervention necessitated a specific tool which did not exist: a cross-sectional pre-post instrument that measured bonding and bridging social capital for individuals entering an unfamiliar environment. This study used social capital as a theoretical framework and frame analysis theory as a conceptual framework, and comparison to other social capital instruments, three focus groups, and two trials for the design and testing of the instrument. The results indicated that the survey was measuring perceived social capital rather than actual social capital; that the identities and frameworks of first-generation, low-income, and/or eldest-born have large impacts on students’ measured levels of social capital; and ensuring participant anonymity may be the best way to avoid non-response bias. Implications of these results as well as suggestions for future research and practice are discussed, including further refinement of the created survey and its use in the assessment and improvement of college student mental health.
Mental health, college, first-generation, belonging, social capital, social