York research points to link between depression and feeling valued

A youth sits bereft against a stone wall

A new study led by psychology researchers at York University’s Faculty of Health has found that youth who feel like they do not matter are highly susceptible to distress and depression.

Gordon Flett
Gordon Flett

In the first study to establish links among feelings of not mattering and depression and brooding about feelings, Professor Gordon Flett and his team in the Department of Psychology found students who feel like they don’t matter have an insecure attachment style that tends to make them anxious and avoidant of other people.

Early on, children who don’t feel valued have difficulty as students dealing with transitions, and the feeling of not mattering is “a cognitive lens that young people are using as they go out into the world.” This can undermine their learning and confidence well before they enter university, says Flett, who is also director of York’s LaMarsh Centre for Child & Youth Research.

“Some students are showing up at university in a position that makes them really vulnerable from the start: for example, someone who has a basic view of themselves as somebody who is not really significant in the lives of other people and also then goes away from home for the first time facing the stresses a transition to university,” says Flett. “Much of their risk of depression is due to the fact that they’ve developed a sense of not being significant to other people. These individuals will be highly sensitive to experiences where they feel people are treating them like they don’t matter. They will then make these feelings persist by ruminating and brooding about their feelings.”

The study showed the link with self-criticism and feelings of not mattering extends to a sense of self-hate for some people.

“It is likely that people who feel like they don’t matter spend a lot of time thinking about why they don’t matter, and this is probably very destructive in terms of their well-being and physical health,” says Flett.

The study, published online in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, was conducted with 247 students with an average age of 20. Students were given questionnaires and data was analyzed using several different scales reflecting these characteristics.

Researchers concluded that students who feel like they don’t matter would benefit greatly from counseling and a transition to university program that promotes a sense of mattering and belonging.

Previous research has shown that some students who feel this way have had a history of neglect or bullying or unfortunate interactions with peers, says Flett. He emphasizes the importance however in differentiating between mattering and a sense of belonging.

“You can feel like you’re part of a group but also feel invisible, that is to say, you can feel connected but not feel valued or really listened to by others,” emphasizes Flett.

Researchers say young people need to be provided context and experiences early on so that they are in a more resilient frame of mind during transitions.