Research Spotlight: Psych project examines stress in adolescents

All students at the College, who are notoriously ambitious and active in the community, have undoubtedly felt stressed at one point or another. For some, that day-to-day stress can develop into something more, and it is on this topic that Assistant Professor of Psychology Kate Stroud is conducting her research. In “Project on Youth Stress and Coping,”  Stroud’s main goal is to identify factors that affect adolescents’ response to stress and contribute to their susceptibility. “All adolescents experience stress, but not all develop depression,” Stroud said. Her research focuses on identifying risk factors and targeting adolescents who exhibit them in an effort to prevent the onset of depression.

“Project on Youth Stress and Coping” is a multi-wave longitudinal study, which means that data is collected from a group of participants multiple times over the course of several years. Stroud is specifically doing research on adolescent girls and their primary female caregivers. The research is conducted beginning when the girls are in either sixth or seventh grade and continues until their graduation from high school. They are selected at this age because, as Stroud explained, “None have a history of depression when the study begins, so we can identify causal factors,” which helps treatment and prevention efforts.

Eighty-six families are currently participating, though Stroud and her team are looking to recruit more for a goal of 150 families total. Families are residents of Berkshire County, South County and Southern County, and were contacted through the girls’ schools where information was passed out to students. “Families participate because they want to help other girls to be able to cope more effectively with stress,” Stroud said of her volunteers. Why girls? “The rate of depression increases in adolescence for girls and not for boys,” Stroud said. “A lot of girls struggle with [depression] and a lot of my clinical work was with girls.”

Last November, Stroud held her initial visits, interviewing the girls and their female caregivers in the laboratory and having them fill out an online questionnaire. The follow-ups take place once a year – the first wave of follow-ups is scheduled to begin later this month – and they consist of a phone interview and an online questionnaire. “Mothers were interviewed about their own diagnostic statuses to see if they have any psychopathology themselves,” Stroud said. The female guardians and their daughters were interviewed separately for “all different types of risk and protective factors,” she explained. Stroud examines genetic polymorphisms known to affect susceptibility to stress, the pattern of adolescents’ diurnal, or daily, cortisol levels, the body’s main stress hormone, personality, the strategies they used to cope with stress and their interpersonal relationships, namely relationships they have with people important in their lives. The research team uses an objective interview to assess stress in every domain in adolescents’ lives, including academics, family, friends, health and a range of other factors, and also inquires about both the teenagers’ chronic experiences and specific events in their lives.

Stroud has taken this chance to allow interested students at the College to engage with her research as well. “Williams students are involved in all aspects of the study,” Stroud said. They conduct the interviews, collect more families to participate, schedule the appointments and answer any questions the subjects might have, advertise for the study in local schools and take care of a range of mundane administrative tasks such as mailing paperwork.

According to Stroud, 12 current College students are assisting with the study, along with an interviewer with a Masters in social work. “They contact me because they’re in my class or heard about the study and are interested in it,” Stroud said. One such student is  Effua Sosoo ’13, who has been assisting Stroud in her work since last fall.

Sosoo first became familiar with Stroud and her research after taking her course on psychological disorders. Now, Sosoo says that Stroud serves as a friend and a mentor to her, offering guidance in applying to graduate school in clinical psychology and helping her figure out what she wants from the future.

In graduate school, Stroud sought to understand the relationship between stress and depression, as well as that of interpersonal relationships and depression. She spent a lot of time with her colleagues doing research, concluding that when adolescents become involved in romantic relationships, they are more prone to depression. “It’s not risky behavior as much as normal, normative involvement” that Stroud found to be a trigger to depression.

At present, Stroud is also in the midst of two other research projects. One, which many College students have already participated in by answering the online questionnaire, focuses on the relationship between casual sex and emotional health. The results of this study have yet to be disclosed by Stroud, as she anticipates more volunteers to participate over the coming months.

The second study is a follow-up to one Stroud led while in graduate school. It examines the effect of romantic involvement on sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade boys’ and girls’ risk of depression. “Girls who are depressed tend to seek out romantic relationships,” Stroud said, but it is unclear if there is the same association with teenage boys.

Stroud is looking to see if the subjects who were in romantic relationships at a given time were more or less likely to be depressed one year later, and if subjects who were depressed at a given time were more or less likely to be involved in a romantic relationship one year later.

The association between depression and involvement in romantic relationships appears to be bidirectional. “It turns out that [romantic] relationships in adulthood are associated with reduced depression. But romantic involvement is challenging for adolescents and those who don’t have the skills to cope with that challenge develop depression,” Stroud said.