Population Health

January 14, 2021

Project seeks to better tailor responses to student mental health at the UW

Image of students on a beach at sunsetIn March 2020, the Population Health Initiative awarded six pilot research grants to faculty-led, interdisciplinary research teams committed to addressing critical population health challenges.

One such project, “Analysis to Translation: Accelerating and Tailoring Responses to Student Mental Health,” examines the mental health of the undergraduate student population and aims to put their findings in conversation with mental health resources available at the UW.

To accomplish this, the research team combines expertise in engineering, computer science, and mental and behavioral health. Support for this collaboration signals the Population Health Initiative’s strong commitment to interdisciplinary partnerships.

“There are bodies of literature and approaches to science that are really different from what we normally do in computer science,” Jennifer Mankoff, Ladner professor in the Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, said. “Bringing those together is a real strength of a project like this.”

The research team includes Paula Nurius, Grace Beals-Ferguson professor and associate dean of the UW School of Social Work, an expert in mental and behavioral health. Working alongside Mankoff and Nurius are Eve Riskin, professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering and faculty director of ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change, and Anind Dey, professor and dean of the UW Information School.

Recognizing the stresses undergraduate students encounter, the project aims to study student well-being and identify predictors of negative outcomes in student mental health.

“This transition from adolescence to early adulthood is a fairly precarious time period because a lot of serious mental health issues clinically manifest during that age,” Nurius said.

The project also works to promote equity in student access to mental health resources and support. By examining how stress factors vary across historically underrepresented groups, the researchers intend to promote social equity by extrapolating their findings to campus mental health partners.

This information will be used to develop approaches to the prevention and treatment of mental health vulnerabilities. The team has made strides to put its findings into practice, creating a new UWEXP Research/Practice Consortium, in collaboration with UW mental health services and the Resilience Lab.

“When left [untreated], some of these stressors and mental health struggles begin to have a cascading and compounding effect,” Nurius said. “They really can affect success in the academic environment, but then also persist.”

Research findings stem from an ongoing longitudinal study that examines 450 undergraduate students at the UW. It combines objective measurements of sleep, activity and social interaction, with self-reported measures of stress, mental and physical health.

From this data, the team is attempting to develop student behavior models that can be generalized effectively from year-to-year, explained Mankoff.

“We’re seeing the beginnings for being able to develop interventions or tools that can supplement what might be seen as conventional, traditional mental health supports,” Nurius said.

Research collection began in 2018 and is ongoing. The project will examine its study participants’ mental health throughout their time at the UW.

The study has notably coincided with the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. This coincidence will allow the researchers to analyze student mental health before and after the pandemic’s onset.

“The world events that have been occurring over the last 12 months are highly relevant, especially to our underserved populations,” Mankoff said. “There’s a lot of external stressors that impact our study population in unique ways. Part of what this study tries to do is remember that students do not exist in a bubble.”

Following the initial data collection, the researchers are now expanding their findings in topics related to student experiences, including marginalization, disabilities, technology and mental health outcomes. The team currently has four different papers in progress.

Through the support the group has received from the Population Health Initiative and other partners, it has been able to translate its findings and analysis goals into long-term, impactful changes and contributions to the mental health landscape at the UW.

“Our goal is not necessarily just to intervene at the individual level, but also to think about structural services and change that can help improve the experience that students have, and their mental health as a result,” Mankoff said.