In 2020, then-junior Eleanor Tetreault ‘21 was selected as a Pelotonia Summer Research Intern at The Ohio State University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, a competitive program offered in partnership with Kenyon that allows six undergraduate students each year to complete a 10-week research project at the university’s campus in Columbus. Tetreault, who majored in psychology and minored in anthropology, was mentored by Amy Ferketich, a professor of epidemiology at Ohio State. Tetreault thought, at first, that she would be assisting with a study about the effects of warning labels on hookahs. But the onslaught of the pandemic quickly changed the team’s focus to the issue of how the pandemic was affecting the mental health of adolescent males.  

“Studies from other countries had been coming out demonstrating that adolescents and young adults were experiencing increased feelings of depression and anxiety,” Ferketich said. “When we started our study, there was not much out yet on how youth in the U.S. were impacted.”

Under Ferketich’s tutelage, Tetreault and her fellow researchers reached out to adolescent males between the ages of 11 and 17 who lived in rural and urban counties in Ohio for a study about perceived mental health changes during the early months of the pandemic. The subjects were asked to self-report on how their mood, anxiety and connections to family and friends were impacted by the pandemic. 

The results of the study, which were published in the Journal of Adolescent Health this June, were illuminating. Nearly a third of the 571 participants reported that their mood had worsened or their anxiety, had increased between March and June 2020. Participants from higher socioeconomic groups were more likely to report an increase in negative mental health symptoms during those early months, the study also showed.

What was also noteworthy about the study was that Tetreault — then still an undergraduate at Kenyon — was listed as the lead author. “Many undergraduates get involved in ongoing research with faculty,” Ferketich said. “But fewer get involved at a level that is expected for author-ship on a paper, and even fewer take the leading author role.”

But Tetreault, Ferketich said, “was clearly prepared to tackle the literature on adolescent mental health.” And “her training in psychology was beneficial for that work,” she added. 

Tetreault shared with us her thoughts on the study, how her time at Kenyon has impacted her career path and how it felt to see her name listed as the lead author on a nationally cited study.

Q: Why did you want to apply for the  Pelotonia Summer Research program?

A: I applied because at the time I wanted to pursue a career path in academia and knew that that would be a good steppingstone; I also had heard really positive things about the program from past Kenyon students. It is an amazing opportunity to get one-on-one research experience with a professor that not many undergrads get to have. 

Q: How did this idea for the study come about?

A: An existing cohort had been established for several years and [Ferketich] had already been doing research with them. She was seeing in her other study with the cohort how upset and perturbed a lot of these teens were. They were really affected by the pandemic. So Amy pivoted and was able to get something approved quickly to study.

Q: While one-third of the subjects reported worsening mental health, were you surprised that the number wasn’t even higher considering the magnitude of this unfamiliar pandemic?

A: Yes, I think that is surprising. The other thing that was surprising was that in the qualitative responses, there was a significant number of participants who reported that the pandemic actually served them in some positive ways. [The break from normal routines] gave them extra time to think about things and to be more mindful and to spend time with their family. 

Q: It was also fascinating to see that participants from higher socioeconomic backgrounds tended to experience some of the worse mental health effects from the pandemic.  Do you have any thoughts on why that might be? 

A: Unfortunately, we did not collect that qualitative data on those participants. Because it does go against some existing literature and this was not a pre/post study, we can only guess, but as we discussed in the paper, it could be because those adolescents may have been more likely to come from families where their parents were now working from home, and having one or both parents home likely would be a big change for adolescents and could cause distress.

Q: Did your background in psychology and anthropology prove useful in the research you were doing last summer?

A: Definitely. Especially when I made calls to parents. If the adolescents were under 18, we obviously had to obtain parental permission before we could talk to them or send them the survey. It seems such a trivial task to call parents about permission. But people were really dealing with a lot during the pandemic. Everyone [I talked with] came from all different backgrounds, demographics, experiences and ways of life. I think having that background in psychology and anthropology was helpful just to be able to show up for everyone in the way that they needed at that moment.

Q: How did you hear that the study was going to be accepted for publication?

A: I think we knew for a little bit, but with academia, you never really know until you get the receipt that it’s coming. The review [of the research] can sometimes be a long, arduous process.

Amy emailed the whole group so that every-one could know together. It was super exciting … I didn’t even have my Kenyon degree at that point, which is a little crazy. I was just honored that I had gotten the opportunity.

Q: You’re working at an executive search firm now, focusing on recruiting HR positions for a variety of industries. That feels like a bit of a departure from the academic research you were concentrating on. What made you go into this field?

A: I loved the experiences I had at Kenyon doing research, and also the Pelotonia summer programs doing research. I ultimately decided throughout my senior year that research was not 100% my future. I knew that I wanted to still use my psych degree.

I get my energy from talking to people and being around people. I just thought, “Oh, you know what, I had never thought about this. Why don’t I use my psych degree in more of a business capacity?”

Q: Is mental health something you are going to continue to think about, and concentrate on, in the future?

A: Yes. This was — and is — a really bizarre time to be a young adult and especially a college student. Your daily routine and life is highly impacted and this will obviously cause some kind of mental perturbance, even if we don’t know what this is as of right now. I won’t be doing anything further with the research — my new job is keeping me plenty busy! But I will continue to follow research as it comes out in real time on how the pandemic has impacted mental health and drug use in the adolescent and young adult populations. 

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