What depression looks like for UAF students

Alaska is notorious for seasonal affective disorder, which a 1992 study said affected 9.2 percent of a random sample of 283 Fairbanks residents. Hoping to update some of that mental health research, Kathryn Harrod interviewed UAF students about their experience with depression.

“There is not a lot of research going into Alaskan college student life so it kind of opens up a new demographic,” Harrod, an undergraduate researcher, said.

The study was based off of the Social-Ecological Model, which was developed by the CDC to understand what factors into violence. The model includes four levels of influence: societal, community, relationship and individual.

“We found that there is another [level] that needs to be included for Alaska in particular which is an environmental level—because we have the darkness in the winter time,” Harrod said. “So that could potentially benefit research in Alaska or other places with seasonal affective disorder.”

The goal of Harrod’s study is to find out what factors helped or hindered students coping with depression at UAF. Two undergraduate students are in the process of analyzing the audio from the ten interviews—looking for similarities and differences.

Harrod said students brought up things that are commonly known to ease depression, such as exercise.

On UAF Research Day, April 10, Harrod presented on the use of photo elicitation as a method of interviewing.

Photo elicitation

The 10 participants were instructed to bring two photos with them to the interview: one that represents what it’s like to be a student living with depression and one that brings the participant hope in the face of depression.

“People who brought in the photos, they really seemed like they put effort into it and put some good thought into it and it really reflected how they felt,” Harrod said. “So I think that photo elicitation in general could even be useful for interviews involving other mental illness or difficult topics.”

Photo elicitation is a method designed to help prompt the interviewees to discuss topics. Adding the visual element seems to evoke more feelings, memories and information, according to a 2002 review by Douglas Harper, a professor of sociology at Duquense University.

“It was just a really nice starting place,” Harrod said. “Kind of just breaking the ice instead of just jumping right into questions. It helped us relate on a level before we got into the more complicated stuff.”

Feeling through photography

At the Research Day showcase, Harrod’s poster had a few examples of photos that participants took and what those students had to say about them.

One participant’s photo was just of the interior of their backpack—loose change, pens and crumpled pieces of paper lining the bottom.

“Yeah, that photo just makes me cringe, cause it’s just so dirty at the bottom,” they told Harrod. “It makes my skin crawl. It doesn’t feel good … it’s kinda what ends up happening when the depression takes over.”

Many of the examples reflected this photojournalism style of chronicling the participants experiences as they occur. One example was very different. It was more like a self-portrait—made with thought into what was in frame and how the photo was edited to be desaturated.

“And so I guess my picture. … I chose to have it in not-realistic colors, kind of like grey and bleak, because that’s how you feel ‘cause there isn’t colors in the world,” they told Harrod. “I chose to have it with my computer because that’s how you spend your life as a student is with your computer. And I chose to have it, like you can’t see my face because you don’t want to be seen when you’re in that way. And I chose it with a crumpled up tissue because that’s reality. Usually there’s tears.”

Harrod noted that one thing that was clear from the photos was that depression can affect people in many ways.

“Depression isn’t just one thing,” Harrod said. “Even in these photos, participants went and brought up specific parts of their life that they found most important and it was different for everyone. There was some correlation, but really it’s not just one thing. You can’t just look on WebMD and see this is what depression is.”