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Knowledge Mobilization Spotlight: How the research of 3 graduate students studying mental health evolved to include the effects of COVID-19

graduate students COVID-19 knowledge mobilization award spotlight grant mental health
By Emily Carman on December 17, 2020

There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health of people all around the world. For some, COVID-19 and quarantines put a stop to their everyday lives leading to feelings of boredom, isolation and restlessness. For others, like first responders and essential workers, their jobs never stopped and became even more difficult, resulting in feelings of stress, fear and anxiety. Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and finding solutions has become extremely important.

Kathleen Padilla, Courtney Smith and Joanna Cohen were each researching issues related to mental health within different groups of people. While the pandemic has posed challenges to their research, each of these graduate students innovated to push their research projects forward. Rather than letting COVID-19 be a hindrance, they each decided to make COVID-19 a part of their research and develop solutions to the mental health issues it causes.

In October, the Graduate College asked graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to share the challenges they have faced as a result of the pandemic and the innovative ways they overcame those challenges. Now, we are highlighting several of these innovative solutions to create a resource that students, fellows and faculty can turn to for inspiration as COVID-19 continues to impact research.

Understanding and combating police officer stressors 

Kathleen Padilla is a doctoral student studying criminology & criminal justice at ASU. Her research is focused on police officer stress and mental health.

Padilla’s research includes administering surveys and conducting interviews with police officers to identify the sources of their stress, learn department procedures for helping officers handle stress and to understand what prevents officers from seeking mental health help.

“The goal is to help departments better identify challenges being faced by their officers and provide the support and services to help them properly manage those challenges,” Padilla wrote. “This will inherently improve their working environment and help improve their relationships with the community.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, it had a personal impact on Padilla’s own mental health. 

“Writing my dissertation proposal while researching and writing about stress all day during an overwhelmingly stressful time was incredibly difficult,” she wrote.

Beyond the personal impact, the pandemic also significantly impacted her research.

“Covid-19 impacted my research area by effectively creating a source of stress for policing that was otherwise completely unprecedented,” Padilla wrote. “Now Police officers are having to manage the stress that has always been present in their everyday job, in addition to a worldwide pandemic.”

Padilla quickly understood that much of her research, which she had conducted in the previous year, was already out-of-date as she had identified newer and more significant areas of research which needed to be addressed. 

Therefore, Padilla added a COVID-19 component to her research by introducing a biomedical perspective into her studies of stress, when she had previously only been using physiological or criminological explanations.

“Understanding what stress does to the human body – physically, psychologically, or behaviorally – is imperative to ensuring the health and wellness of our police officers and citizens as a whole,” she wrote.

Padilla is excited for the positive impact her research can have on police officers and the general public.

“This holistic approach to stress can be applied to the general public, and preventative strategies and coping mechanisms can be implemented and taught to help individuals manage stress and reduce the harm it can have on their everyday lives,” Padilla wrote.

Because of Padilla’s innovation in continuing her research, she was awarded a $100 Knowledge Mobilization Spotlight Grant by the Graduate College.

Helping college students infected with COVID-19 reduce loneliness

Throughout the pandemic, Courtney Smith, a graduate student studying educational leadership and innovation, has been working to help college students infected with COVID-19 fight loneliness and improve their mental wellness.

Smith’s original research project was a wellness program designed for athletes with physical disabilities in order to combat loneliness and impact their overall well being.  

However, the pandemic posed a significant risk to the adaptive community Smith wished to study and also closed the facilities needed for her research.

“This forced me to think of how I could take all of the research that I had already dove so deeply into and completed and apply it to a different, more COVID-safe (if such a term exists) population,” Smith wrote. 

Smith developed her project and decided to apply her research on loneliness to COVID-postive and COVID-exposed college students who had been put into quarantine and isolation.

“Students will participate in a pre-program interview within the first 3days of their isolation period, receive a suggested list of wellness programs that they can optionally participate in and then participate in a post-isolation period interview,” Smith explained.

The purpose of this new study is to “implement wellness programming as an intervention to reduce loneliness in college students experiencing isolation to the COVID-19 pandemic,” she wrote.

But Smith hopes that this research will ultimately have a greater impact. 

“The experience of each of these students is different from any of other generations and thus, focusing on their wellness needs is important work that will be enlightening for future use and hopefully more broad application to college student loneliness,” Smith wrote.

Smith also received a $100 Knowledge Mobilization Spotlight Grant from the Graduate College due to her innovative solution to the challenges posed to her research by COVID-19.

Uplifting social workers in the Arizona Department of Child Safety 

Joanna Cohen is working on her masters of social work while interning at the Arizona Department of Child Safety as part of their Workforce Resilience Team. 

“The purpose of the voluntary team is to provide support for first-responders and overworked child welfare staff in Arizona,” Cohen explained. “Services provided include a safe and confidential place to unload secondary trauma, grief, and stress with a trained, knowledgeable peer in the field.”

Cohen was midway through her internship with the Workforce Resilience Team when COVID-19 hit. 

Cohen’s classes, as well as her in-person visits to various department sites were cancelled due to risk of COVID-19 exposure. Therefore, Cohen needed to find a way to support first responder child welfare staff without creating additional exposure risks. 

 Her response was to take as many services as she could provide and offer them in a virtual format.

“I continued to provide responses for front line workers and, although we did continue to offer the in-person format, we expanded our reach to include sessions via Microsoft Teams and Zoom,” Cohen wrote.

Additionally, Cohen was able to track data regarding the number of people using the workforce resilience team’s service and determine user preferences for peer support. 

Unfortunately, Cohen found that most people still preferred in-person responses for peer support, and that the number of people using the service declined as workers went remote

Despite this, Cohen was determined to continue to engage social workers in an online way. 

“We started sending general wellness information to our regions, more frequent reminders about secondary stress and the effects of COVID on our well-being as first responders, and the agency created ‘positive encouragement’ sticky notes that we stuck around people's cubicles randomly throughout the spring and summer for a surprise piece of encouragement for those who continued to put their lives at risk to ensure child safety,” she wrote.

In acknowledgment of her innovative work to continue to support child safety workers despite COVID-19 setbacks, Cohen was also awarded a Knowledge Mobilization Spotlight Grant.