A Grounded Theory Investigation Into Depression in Freshman College Students

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Theresa A. Kessler, PhD, RN, ACNS-BC, CNE
College of Nursing & Health Professions, Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, IN, USA


Freshman students may find adjusting to college a stressful experience. The stressors students face during this time of transition require the use of previously developed coping mechanisms, as well as the development of new strategies to effectively adjust to university life. Because adapting to these life changes may be challenging, freshmen college students are at risk of developing depressive symptomology. In a survey of 74, 438 college students in the US, 30.3% reported feeling so depressed it was difficulty to function, and 42.0% reported feeling hopeless (ACHA, 2015). Consequences of unrecognized or untreated depression in adolescents can be significant. These consequences may include high-risk behaviors, poor academic performance, sleep disturbances, physical health problems, and suicidal ideation (Reeves & Riddle, 2014).

Based on the significance of this problem, the purpose of the study was to gain knowledge about the experience of living with depression as a freshman college student. The majority of the studies addressing adjustment to college have used quantitative data collection methodologies, thus, missing the richness of social processes surrounding this experience. By using grounded theory and no predetermined questions, students could freely discuss their experiences of living with depression as a college freshman.


Participants were recruited through scripted class announcements and flyers placed across campus which described the desire to learn about depression and adjusting to the first year of college. After providing informed consent, each participant completed an interview with the primary investigator. Each interview began with the same question: What is the experience of your freshman year in college? Every interview was audio recorded, transcribed verbatim, and reviewed by the primary investigator for accuracy. Using grounded theory, the research team analyzed each interview using constant comparative methodology. Data collection continued until saturation was achieved.


 A convenience sample of 12 sophomore-level college students from a Midwestern, private, faith-based university in the US participated. The sample consisted of 11 females and one male, with an average age of 19.92 years. Nine participants were Caucasian, two were Hispanic, and one was African American.

Following analysis of the data, four major themes related to living with depression as a college freshman emerged. These themes include expression of stress, changes in eating habits, sleep issues, and procrastination/putting things off. Descriptive examples of each of the themes were found throughout the interview data. These themes reflected the participants’ perceptions of their freshmen year in college. The descriptors suggested the emotional, social, physical, and behavioral responses to what is perceived as depression. Through individual reflections, students also described how these themes were connected to form the process of living with depression their freshman year.


With a greater understanding of the experience of living with depression as a freshman college student, nurses and other mental health professionals will have additional evidence to guide their professional practices. The results of this study may provide additional insight into prevention strategies to help college students move successfully through the freshmen experience.