Depression among undergraduates

Nearly one in four undergraduates report having depression. As such, we can expect that students with depression enter our research labs as undergraduate researchers. In fact, data that we have collected across a total of 62 research-intensive (R1) institutions, master’s granting institutions, and primarily undergraduate institutions revealed that 35% of undergraduate researchers report that they have struggled with depression.

Nearly one in four undergraduates report having depression.

The mentor’s role

A recent study that I conducted with graduate student Logan Gin and colleagues found that students with depression experience unique challenges in undergraduate research. We identified that students’ negative relationships with others in the lab, the time demands of research, and failure in research can exacerbate students’ depression. However, students reported that research mentors can have a tremendously positive impact on their depression, specifically in the context of undergraduate research. We have identified five student-supported recommendations about how research mentors can help students with depression:

  1. Recognize student depression as a valid illness
  2. Create a positive lab environment
  3. Develop a more personal relationship with undergraduates and provide sufficient guidance
  4. Treat undergraduates with respect and remember to praise them
  5. Normalize failure and be explicit about the importance of research contributions.

Research mentors can have a tremendously positive impact on depression experienced by undergrad researchers.

Depending on revelation

While these recommendations can help research mentors improve the experiences of students with depression, how do we know which of our undergraduates struggle with depression? Depression is a concealable stigmatized identity, or an identity that can be kept hidden or invisible and that can result in loss of status and/or discrimination in society. Thus, we can likely only recognize if a student has depression if they reveal it to us, but they may be reluctant to do so because of the negative stereotypes associated with mental illness.

Six reasons to conceal

In a recent study published by the International Journal of STEM Education, we interviewed 35 undergraduates with depression doing research at 12 R1 institutions across the U.S. to better understand when and why undergraduates choose to reveal and conceal their depression in research.

We found that students are most likely to reveal their depression to fellow undergraduates and least likely to reveal their depression to primary investigators (PIs). In fact, only 2 of the 35 undergraduates had revealed their depression to their PI. When we asked students why they chose to conceal their depression, six primary reasons emerged:

  1. Students worried they will be treated differently in a negative way because of their depression
  2. Students didn’t have enough of a personal relationship with people in their labs
  3. Students felt it is unnecessary to share their depression with others
  4. Students perceived it is inappropriate to talk about emotions in a research setting
  5. Students felt uncomfortable in general talking about their depression with others
  6. Students worried that people in the lab would reveal their depression to others.

Fighting the stigma and helping students to reveal depression

Despite the majority of students choosing to conceal their depression in the lab, they were able to recognize potential benefits they might experience if they were able to reveal their depression.

Despite the majority of students choosing to conceal their depression in the lab, they were able to recognize potential benefits they might experience if they were able to reveal their depression.

They explained that if other knew about their depression, mentors may be more flexible with research-related responsibilities, it would allow students with depression to be honest about when their depression causes them to struggle with research-related tasks, and mentors might be able to provide support by checking in on them or offering words of support.

So, if we want to encourage our students to reveal their depression so that we can support them as mentors, we can start by getting to know them personally, acknowledge depression as a valid illness, and help normalize depression by lessening the stigma in the lab.