Research focuses on young people who face ‘a dizzying duality of both resilience and risk’
One in three college freshmen worldwide reports having mental health problems, a fact that helps to drive a psychology professor who seeks student volunteers for a study to address that concern at the University of Colorado Boulder.
June Gruber, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience who studies happiness, has launched a project called EMERGE—Examining Milestones in Emotion Regulation Growth and Educations. It is a paid study collecting mental-health data from first-year students at CU Boulder.
The study explores the age Gruber calls emerging adulthood, during which young people often go to college and experience some form of mental illness. EMERGE aims to enhance college wellbeing and mental health resources on campus, and the study is being conducted by the Positive Emotion and Psychopathology (PEP) lab, which Gruber directs.
Gruber says her background teaching psychology and neuroscience and being “someone that values mental health service outreach” influenced the creation and structure of the project. EMERGE aims to satisfy scholarship, science and public outreach for community benefit.
Students are paid $20 for participation in a survey lasting less than an hour. Completed in four parts, the study involves an initial survey, a lab visit, a diary study in the freshman’s first months, and a follow-up period lasting from that December to the next fall.
Gruber says the project “has become a wonderful synergistic partnership” between the PEP lab and on-campus groups like the Office of Undergraduate Education, the University Exploration & Advising Center, the Center for STEM Learning, the College of Arts and Sciences Academic Advising Center and the Office of Data Analytics.
The study follows students through their second year to analyze how the findings impact their long-term college career and its aftermath."
EMERGE aspires to provide a descriptive profile of students’ emotions, decision-making and “overall adjustment” drawing on data from the survey, lab visit and diary.
Another objective is to identify what “ingredients,” or psychological mechanisms, might help explain students’ patterns of decision making and emotional wellbeing. Gruber notes that college students, typically ages 18-25, face “a dizzying duality of both resilience and risk.”
Finally, EMERGE engages in community outreach. “We want to take this outside the lab,” Gruber explains. The ultimate aim is to circulate the material back to educators with “the goal that the information that we gain can be disseminated more broadly back to the college students themselves.”
June Gruber appears in a TEDx Cambridge video about the "dark side of happiness."
Gruber cites the World Health Organization’s research indicating that one in three students reports prolonged periods of depression, one in seven report “abnormally reckless behavior,” and one in four reports suicidal thoughts or feelings. Even to her own students at CU, these numbers are “startlingly high.”
“This is not simply an issue affecting the individual college student” Gruber says, explaining the cascading effects of mental illness. Classmates, roommates and friends of a suffering peer are themselves at increased risk for depression.
Gruber hopes to distribute the study results widely, starting with courses and campus workshops centered around mental health for CU Boulder students.
“The ideal impact for our students is to increase their own understanding of mental health issues facing college students just like themselves,” Gruber says.
Gruber underscores the importance of “feeding back the results” of the study to the campus population. Circulating these data will ideally help build new initiatives, programs and mental health resources on campus, and “enhance the transition to college” worldwide.
“After all, we are in an interconnected and common ecosystem,” Gruber observes
To participate in the study or learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “EMERGE.”