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Students Overcoming the Crisis of Not Belonging

Story Circles create connection, community and belonging.

Key points

  • College students are experiencing a mental health crisis of not belonging.
  • Story Circles are a simple yet highly effective way to help a group of individuals find common ground.
  • Story Circles can help foster a sense of empathy and belonging. Stories help clarify meaning and purpose in life.

Predictions of a mental health crisis among college students are dire–a 2020 CDC report found that 44 percent of students reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in the previous year.

College students across the country report higher levels of depression and anxiety than ever before. Since the March 2020 lockdown, the world has experienced unprecedented change that has impacted individual, community, national and international spheres. Alongside the pandemic crises, political and social justice upheavals have shifted perceptions of the present and the future world into which young adults are emerging.

Nick Ladany, the president of Oglethorpe College and a counseling psychologist, predicted in the July 13, 2022, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that the situation will get worse before it gets better. Mental health services on campus are insufficient, and often individual counseling is not the answer.

As we prepare for students to return to the classroom this fall, we must find ways to reach out, help our students cope with the tumultuous world in which they find themselves, and find their place and purpose in the world. This is a tall order.

As I have discussed in this forum before, my colleagues (Monisha Pasupathi and Cecilia Wainryb at the University of Utah, Jordan Booker at the University of Missouri, Kate McLean at Western Washington University, and Andrea Follmer Greenhoot at the University of Kansas) and I have been collecting narratives from students who were in their first year at college when the lockdown started, along with multiple other measures about their experiences and their well-being.

These students began college, moved away from home, and began to explore new identities and ways of being in the world when the rug was pulled out from under them. Most returned to their childhood homes in the spring of their first year, many faced unanticipated financial and health crises in their families, and the vast majority showed increasing depression and anxiety across the two years that we have been studying them.

They also express a sense of being lost, isolated; they do not belong anywhere. But what happened when they were able to return to campus? Did they rebound? Surprisingly very little–they continued to report loneliness and a sense of not belonging, even when back on campus.

A new study in Psychological Science by Janine Dutcher and colleagues confirms our findings–college students are struggling with a sense of belonging. Three data sets across two universities monitored students’ feelings of belonging daily and found that students who report lower levels of a sense of belonging also display higher depression. This is not surprising. When we do not feel like we belong or have people we care about and who care about us, we become depressed.

One of the unnerving repercussions of the isolation of the pandemic is that we have forgotten how to engage socially, about the minutia of life from day to day, and connect. College students are especially vulnerable as they are just emerging into an independent life, new environments, and new ways of interacting. How can we help our students emerge and thrive in this new world?

A strategy that we have implemented at Emory University is using Story Circles to create connections. Story Circles are a remarkably simple yet highly effective way to help any group of individuals find common ground, connect, and empathize.

A Story Circle is about eight to 10 people, with a facilitator who leads the group with a specific story prompt. Each person takes about two to three minutes to tell their story in response to this prompt, such as “Tell about a time that you felt like you did not belong.”

An individual can pass when it comes to their turn in the circle, but the circle returns to them at the end, so everyone participates. During the storytelling, there is no crosstalk, just listening. After everyone has told their story, there is a period of reflection about what just happened–and always, this reflection is about shared emotions, empathic connection, and feeling heard. Belonging. In the words of Andrea Gibson, “Sometimes the most healing thing we can do is to remind ourselves over and over and over, other people feel this too.”

I am not arguing that doing one Story Circle will change a life–but using Story Circles in the dorms, classrooms, and meetings have provided our students with strength and a sense that they are not alone. Students comment on their increasing ability to create connections with others after participating in Story Circles, and many of them bring Story Circles into their communities to spread the stories around. And stories help students reflect on their place in the world more broadly, who they are, and who they want to be. Stories help clarify meaning and purpose in life.

Our students' mental health crisis is genuine and difficult. Facing this crisis will require many strategies and approaches. Story Circles may help us all create connections that heal.

References

Dutcher, J. M., Lederman, J., Jain, M., Price, S., Kumar, A., Villalba, D. K., Tumminia, M. J., Doryab, A., Creswell, K. G., Riskin, E., Sefdigar, Y., Seo, W., Mankoff, J., Cohen, S., Dey, A., & Creswell, J. D. (2022). Lack of belonging predicts depressive symptomatology in college students. Psychological Science,33(7), 1048–1067. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976211073135

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