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Collaborative Research on Mental Health During a Pandemic

Collaborative mental health research at Endicott College.
Professors Sarah McMahon and Aubry Threlkeld, and doctoral student Maureen McLaughlin, worked on a pivotal issue during the COVID-19 pandemic: mental health.

Mentorship. It is both ballast and provocation in the development of higher education professionals. Collaboration. It is how minds meld and create new solutions. Recently, two Endicott College School of Education professors, Sarah McMahon and Aubry Threlkeld; and Maureen McLaughlin, a current doctoral student, began working together to address a pivotal issue during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic: mental health.


Their work culminated in a virtual presentation at The Psychology of Global Crises Conference in Paris titled, “Who is in Charge of Self-Care during a Pandemic? A Preliminary Thematic Analysis of Tweets from Community Colleges in Washington State” and stands to define answers to that question through further research and interpretation.


McMahon, Threlkeld, and McLaughlin’s pilot study examined community college responses to the COVID-19 epidemic via Twitter. Preliminary analysis teased out differences between providing support, focusing on care for anxiety, and causing anxiety. Some recommendations for responding to traumatic events and trauma-informed approaches to higher education were presented. For those who would like to watch the presentation in full, you can view it a starting at minute 27 below:




A Spark 


The initial idea for the pilot came from a simple talk, as brilliant ideas often do. Threlkeld says, “It came from a discussion with Maureen about her research interests in trauma and higher education.”


McLaughlin explains, “The idea of publishing grew from my desire for professional guidance and mentorship. Through discussions and contemplation with Professors Threlkeld and McMahon, emerged the idea of submitting a proposal to a conference.”


“The circumstances surrounding COVID-19 offered immense possibilities for research, and a novice researcher such as myself might have spun in circles trying to determine a direction,” says McLaughlin. “Setting boundaries and using time wisely brought a few conference options to the table. The guidance they provided was instrumental in how and where to drop into this project. Together, we set the parameters, divided tasks, and let an organic research project unfold.”


Open to Collaboration


Faculty at Endicott embrace the opportunity to work alongside their students and other faculty contemporaries. Threlkeld says, “Endicott faculty have a long history of supporting each other and students in research. This is even more important when you are mentoring future faculty and leaders in a doctoral context.”


When they go about looking for a research partner or contributor, Threlkeld notes that there are several considerations. He says, “There needs to be an alignment. Since we were investigating how institutions of higher education responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was only natural to include faculty from higher education like Sarah McMahon. Maureen and I both share interests in addressing trauma among vulnerable populations. We all have experience and interest in qualitative studies so that also helped.”


Research Together


McLaughlin says, “As a student finishing my first year in the doctoral program, I felt it was important to begin seeking relationships and opportunities for professional development that align with research interests. Because I am not a professional in the higher education sector, this seemed like a daunting endeavor. Collaborating on a research project with established faculty in the areas of research, publishing, and teaching presented me not only an opportunity to work on a contributory field project, but to discover the subtler yet integral components of teaching, mentoring, and the higher education culture at large.”


“Research by definition can be messy,” says McLaughlin. “One must stick with a process that involves patience and getting it wrong more often than getting it right. That is where the teaching and mentoring comes in. A truly purposed and intentional mentor looks at those roadblocks as teaching moments, letting a student struggle, just enough, before offering a slight shoulder turn to avoid the impending unseen sinkhole they are about to strike. That is what collaborating with faculty is like. Yes, it is about the research, but it is also about learning how to mentor and how to help a student discover their ways of learning. Within that collaborative partnership magic happens.”


The Conference Experience


Presenting at an international conference is certainly an honor. We asked the team about their feelings on it. Threlkeld says, “This is my second virtual conference this spring and while I miss the informal networking associated with conference attendance, this is a much easier way to share our research.” He laughs, “It would have been nice to go to Paris!”


This was actually McLaughlin’s first conference. She says, “It was great! For me, this one was more about the process than the presentation. The most eye-opening experience during the conference was just how vast research truly is. The variety and depth of topics, experiences, cultures, and perspectives were beyond my wildest imagination. It was humbling and inspiring at the same time.”


The Results


While the results of the pilot are still being analyzed and the work will continue, the preliminary results are highly fascinating.


“We were most surprised at the way logistical messages regarding the community college's responses to the pandemic conveyed a sense of authority during a crisis,” says Threlkeld. “This led us to at least preliminarily conclude that these messages were meant to provide some structure during a difficult time.”


McLaughlin says, “The emerging themes unveiled that the chasm between self-care assumptions and basic student needs was shocking. Intention does not always produce what the other may need. Our perspective is a filtered vantage point and it requires evaluation and feedback of all kinds.”


The research trio plans to continue by expanding their sample size. “As of now, we are moving forward with our research and investigating ways to continue the study and share it with a broader and diversified audience,” says McLaughlin.


Protecting Your Mental Health


Across the world people are currently struggling to protect their mental health. The group offered some suggestions. Threlkeld says, “It can be difficult to be isolated. Keep a routine and take some quiet time away from screens if possible. Connect with friends and family near and far. And lastly, ask people who have experienced depression, anxiety, or isolation for coping strategies.”


McLaughlin says, “There are multiple ways to support mental health during this time. Most importantly is to seek the help of qualified and experienced professionals. Endicott College has a Counseling Center  on campus that is a great resource for our students.”


Ultimately, this story is another excellent example of all the positive things that can come from student/faculty collaboration. “It reminds me of what is possible if we open our research processes to each other and share it with the world,” says Threlkeld.