Mental Health for First-Generation Students

First-generation college students face unique mental health challenges. Find out what type of support is typically available and what barriers still exist.

portrait of Amanda Svachula
by Amanda Svachula

Published on March 29, 2022 · Updated on May 16, 2022

Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

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Mental Health for First-Generation Students
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According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, first-generation students — the first people in their immediate families to attend college — made up over half of the college student population in 2015-2016. For first-generation students, adjusting to a new environment can be difficult and may cause mental health challenges.

First-generation students who lack sources of financial support may encounter additional stressors that can lead to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many mental health challenges for first-generation students.

It is important that first-generation students have access to a variety of mental health support options. In this guide, we explore the different types of mental health support available to first-generation students, barriers to accessing care, and resources to help students connect to mental health support.

“As a first-generation Mexican American, I was acutely aware of the sacrifices my parents made for college to be an option for me. They left their families and came to this country, learned a new language and social norms, and worked tirelessly to provide for us. I — along with many other first-generation — students carry a lot of guilt and feelings of not-enoughness.

The transition into college is hard on most students' mental health and isn't specifically tied to any particular race, however, the support we have access to can make a big impact.”

— Annia Palacios, Licensed Professional Counselor

Types of Mental Health Support

Each year, mental health becomes more of a priority on college campuses nationwide. Many supportive colleges offer a variety of mental health services.

Most private and public colleges host on-campus counseling centers staffed by licensed therapists. Counselors often offer in-person or teletherapy sessions to help students navigate mental health challenges. These centers may also offer group therapy, treatment recommendations, and referrals to off-campus support options.

Many colleges recognize that wellness services like nutrition counseling, fitness classes, and substance-related treatment programs are necessary to help students take care of their holistic health. These types of programs can include peer counseling sessions and workshops to help students improve personal coping strategies.

“My advice to first-generation students seeking mental health support is to recognize the strength in being vulnerable and seeking the care you need. The stigma that exists is harmful for our long-term health, so feel confident in your choice to better yourself.

Experiment with healthy forms of treatment until you find what works best for you.”

— Reggie Ford, First-Generation College Graduate of Vanderbilt University

Barriers to Mental Health Support for First-Generation Students

First-generation college students may encounter many challenges when looking for mental health support. The pressure to succeed academically can cause some first-generation students to avoid seeking help altogether. Fear of negative stigmas associated with mental health can create barriers between students and support systems.

There are also institutional barriers that can hamper first-generation students' ability to access help. Lack of cultural and ethnic representation among mental healthcare providers can prevent some first-generation students from seeking the resources available to them or render the help they do get harmful or ineffective. Students searching for culturally competent care may feel put off by the small number of available providers who share their own identities.

“The lack of culturally competent providers presents a barrier to first-generation students. Often, first-generation students come from diverse backgrounds that aren't highly represented by mental health professionals, so there is hesitance and even frustration when seeking care.”

— Reggie Ford, First-Generation College Graduate of Vanderbilt University

Many first-generation students tend to have less generational wealth than their peers. They're more likely to experience financial challenges during and after college, due to student loans and other debts. These economic challenges can also make it harder to afford therapy or other mental health supports.

Choosing the Right Mental Health Support for You

When choosing mental health support, first-generation students should consider multiple factors. Students should regularly consider how they feel, checking in with themselves and learning about useful coping strategies.

First-generation students might value a therapist with a similar cultural background or lived experiences. It is important to find a therapist who practices culturally competent care, no matter their background. A counselor's ability to support your needs is an important factor when considering your mental health support.

On-campus mental health services are often offered at a discounted rate or included in tuition fees. Check with your school to find the available options that might fit your needs. Fortunately, telehealth services are now commonplace and offer students the option to receive support from any location.

“Representation matters, so finding a mental health professional who looks like you and/or understands your unique experiences can begin to provide the support and understanding you've been looking for. We can be our best selves, get good grades, make our family proud, AND care for ourselves and our mental health.”

— Annia Palacios, Licensed Professional Counselor

Mental Health Resources for First-Generation Students

Active Minds hosts chapters nationwide on college campuses. Each location offers mental health support that can help students better understand their options. JED offers a mental health resource center where students can learn to care for their mental health. This hotline provides emergency support for individuals in crisis. It also connects students to mental health resources in their area. NAMI hosts college chapters that offer peer-support groups for students seeking mental health support. Its website includes resources and information to learn more about mental health topics. This book, written by Rainsford Stauffer, illuminates the pressure that young people are put under to succeed today. Its themes and storylines offer a look into the importance of developing positive mental health habits. This student-led podcast features conversations about mental health with students nationwide. Hosts Noah and Zion guide listeners through individual stories and expert advice. This therapy app offers on-demand therapeutic listeners for anyone in need. Its advice column also provides advice on mental health topics. The Clinicians of Color database provides an extensive list of therapists who identify as people of color. This resource may be helpful for students seeking culturally competent care providers. This online resource guides individuals through a series of prompts that help shape a personalized mental health plan. The Fabulous aims to build balance and reduce stress.

Take Time to Prioritize Self-Care

Give yourself time and space to focus on you. Explore our collection of mental health resources to find support.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Mental Health

true What is a first-generation college student?

A first-generation student is the first member in their family to attend college. If neither of a student's parents hold a bachelor's degree, the federal government's Higher Education Act categorizes them a first-generation student. Many first-generation students lack direct familial exposure to higher education.

true What do first-generation students struggle with?

Some first-generation students grapple with guilt for leaving their families to go to college. This can lead to feelings of shame, confusion and imposter syndrome as they try to navigate the college environment.

Other challenges first-generation students can face include financial barriers like paying for college and isolation. Some first-generation students who identify as racial minorities may experience discrimination on-campus, causing feels of separation or lonliness.

true How does mental health affect social health?

Mental health and social health influence each other. Mental health issues can lead individuals to social isolation and losing interest in previously enjoyable activities. Social health issues, including those connected to social media, can alter individuals' perspective of others. This view can impact self esteem and feelings of anxiety.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Reggie D. Ford

Reggie D. Ford

REGGIE D. FORD, author of the bestselling book, "Perseverance Through Severe Dysfunction: Breaking the Curse of Intergenerational Trauma as a Black Man in America," is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, mental health advocate, and social justice activist. A first-generation college graduate of Vanderbilt University, he runs RoseCrete Wealth Management and speaks to audiences about financial empowerment, overall wellness, and the importance of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. Ford lives in Nashville, TN, with his wife Katie and their Rottweiler, Rosie.


Portrait of Annia Palacios

Annia Palacios

Annia Palacios is a Licensed Professional Counselor and owner of Tightrope Therapy, an online therapy and coaching practice. She is a first-generation Mexican-American and was the first in her family to pursue higher education in the United States. Today, she is a mental health therapist working with many first-generation women and people of color as she helps them navigate the mental health challenges that come with life, work, and parenthood.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this website is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. Readers of this website should consult with their physician to obtain advice with respect to any medical condition or treatment.

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