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Depression can hit science undergrads hard: What to do about it

Researchers behind new study offer best practices to support students in lab work


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June 04, 2020

Depression affected Marta’s lab research. She was so afraid to take risks it put a “short cap” on what she was able to do.

“Maybe I would’ve been able to get internships at institutions like my peers,” she said. “But instead, because I was so limited by my depression, it kept me from doing that.”

She isn't alone. About 25% of U.S. college students self-report a diagnosis with depression, according to estimates.

A recent study explored depression among undergrads doing scientific research. Half of the students sampled nationally from public Research I institutions consider leaving their undergraduate research experience early. About half of those students, or 25% of all students, ultimately do.

About 34% cited a negative lab environment and 33% cited negative relationships with their mentors as factors that caused them to leave. Student depression may be exacerbated in challenging undergraduate research experiences; studies have shown that depression is positively correlated with student stress.

Katelyn Cooper, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida and formerly a postdoctoral scholar in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, was the lead author of the study.

“I’ve been really interested in how mental health affects our students because we know how prevalent mental health concerns are among students,” Cooper said. “Research shows about a quarter of students are affected by depression. That’s a conservative number. But we don’t know how, and that’s what inspired me.”

Cooper and her colleagues interviewed 35 undergraduate researchers majoring in the life sciences from 12 research-intensive public universities across the United States who identify with having depression.

Students reported that depression contributed to lower exam grades, lower course grades and not completing or dropping a course. Students in the natural sciences may be particularly at risk for depression. Those majors are competitive and coursework is often perceived to “weed students out.”

Some research is embedded into formal lab courses as course-based undergraduate research experiences, but most of it entails working with faculty in their research labs.

These research experiences in faculty labs are often added on top of a student’s normal coursework, so they essentially become an extracurricular activity that they have to juggle with classes, work and a personal life.

Doing research, especially under a principal investigator, is not like taking a lab in a class. It’s much more intense.

“The reality is doing undergraduate research is stressful for a lot of these students,” said Sara Brownell, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences and co-author of the study. Part of the stress is constant failure, which is a natural part of science.

“A lot of experiments are going to fail,” Brownell said. “We know that 90% of things in science fail. …That often exacerbates the feelings of ‘I’m not good enough,’ ‘I can’t do it,’ that kind of thing.”

Cooper said that needs to be made more clear.

“Failure is a normal part of science,” she said. “It’s something to expect to fail, and that’s OK. You try and try again and that’s how great discoveries are made. … Maybe for a lot of these students it’s not being made explicit.”

Poor mentoring also negatively affects undergraduate researchers. Specifically, one study of 33 undergraduate researchers who had conducted research at 10 institutions identified seven major ways that they experienced negative mentoring: absenteeism, abuse of power, interpersonal mismatch, lack of career support, lack of psychosocial support, misaligned expectations and unequal treatment.

That was the most surprising finding in the study to Cooper — the extent to which people can affect people with depression, both positively and negatively. Several respondents reported a grad student in a bad mood or an impatient faculty member brought on bouts of depression.

At the beginning of the semester Brownell sends an email to her students: “Just to be clear I want to acknowledge I know mental health is a major problem for folks, and I want to acknowledge you can take a mental health day and you don’t have to tell me that,” her message reads. “You can just say you’re not feeling well.”

“I think that’s made a lot of students feel way more comfortable,” she said. “I think revealing it helps that mentoring relationship a lot, because then I can be much more understanding and supportive realizing they are struggling with depression.”

The authors came up with a list of recommendations to make research more welcoming for students with depression.

  • Recognize student depression as a valid illness. Allow students with depression to take time off by simply saying that they are sick and provide appropriate time for students to recover from depressive episodes. Also, make an effort to destigmatize mental health issues.
  • Foster a positive lab environment. Mentors need to be conscious of their behavior so that they do not unintentionally promote competition among undergraduates or express favoritism toward current or past undergraduates. Praise is likely best used without comparison with others and not done in a public way.
  • Develop more personal relationships with undergraduate researchers and provide sufficient guidance. Make an effort to establish more personal relationships with undergrads and ensure that they perceive that they have access to sufficient help and guidance with regard to their research.
  • Treat undergraduates with respect and remember to praise them. Avoid providing harsh criticism and remember to praise undergraduates. Students with depression often have low self-esteem and are especially self-critical. Praise can help calibrate overly negative self-perceptions.
  • Normalize failure and be explicit about the importance of research contributions. Explicitly remind students that failure is expected in research. Explain to students how their individual work relates to the overall project so that they can understand how their contributions are important. It can also be helpful to explain to students why the research project as a whole is important in the context of the greater scientific community.

“One important takeaway from this study is that we’re treating depression as a valid illness,” Cooper said. “We’re treating it like any illness in that we’re giving students room to recover from a mental health issue just like a physical issue.”

Mental health resources at ASU

Mental health support at ASU is available 24/7. During business hoursMondays: 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays: 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Fridays: 8 a.m.-5 p.m., come to any of the four ASU Counseling Services campus locations or call and ask to speak with a counselor. No appointment necessary. 

  • Downtown Phoenix: 602-496-1155
  • Polytechnic: 480-727-1255
  • Tempe: 480-965-6146
  • West: 602-543-8125

To search for community mental health providers: Use the ASU Community Link at asu.rints.com.

For after-hours/weekend mental health concerns: Call EMPACT’s 24-hour ASU-dedicated crisis hotline: 480-921-1006. Alternatively, use the crisis textline: Text HOME To 741741

For students enrolled through ASU Online, counseling is available through 360 Life Services, a free, 24/7 counseling and crisis intervention service. Staff can be contacted at 833-223-9883 or visit goto.asuonline.asu.edu/360lifeservices.

Top image credit: Gordon Johnson from Pixabay.

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