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Autumn Henry

Since embarking on her college journey in 2018, social work major and John V. Roach Honors College student Autumn Henry’s ’24 focal point has been mental health, driving her to offer support to those facing challenges. Juggling roles as a college student, a mother, including the unexpected role of a teacher during COVID-19, and assuming leadership during the pandemic, provided her with invaluable firsthand experience of the effects of COVID.

In the fall of 2021, Henry began her studies at TCU, discovering that many of her peers, predominantly emerging adults, shared similar experiences of the pandemic’s impact, transcending socioeconomic differences.

Upon acceptance into the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program at TCU, known as the McNair Scholars Program, Henry zeroed in on researching emerging adult mental health and the repercussions of COVID. With unwavering support from her mentors, Associate Professor Aesha John, Ph.D., and McNair Scholars Program Director LaTrina Parker Hall, Ph.D., her research titled “Emerging Adults’ Perceptions of the Impact of COVID on Mental Health” began to take form.

Examining COVID’s Impact on College Students

Conducting a mixed-methods approach with college students aged 18–25, Henry orchestrated focus groups comprised from 16 participants to gather qualitative data. Among the participants, 44% self-identified as Hispanic, 13% self-identified as Black, 13% self-identified as Asian and 31% self-identified as white.

The participants completed a quantitative survey, delving into the effects of COVID on sleep, appetite and grades.

44% of participants reported experiencing trouble falling or staying asleep, reflecting a psychological impact; 56% of participants reported sometimes or never having something to look forward to upon waking up; 50% of participants struggled with daily challenges related to eating, highlighting the intensity of stressors; 62% reported feeling unsupported by their school during lockdown bringing to light its negative effects; and 75% of participants experienced a negative change in grades, shedding light on the academic consequences.

As a researcher, she navigated the challenges of maintaining objectivity during data collection.

“As a student, I had the same experiences and was negatively impacted by COVID,” explains Henry. “I could not make comments, acknowledge or empathize with the lived experiences shared in the focus group. I had to remain objective, holding the sole role of a researcher.”

Autumn Henry
Social work major Autumn Henry '24 presents her research on mental health for her Honors College project.

A Vision for Change

Henry’s research is pivotal, offering profound insights into the impact of the pandemic on this demographic. The study’s findings can guide collaboration between college campuses, mental health care professionals and students to develop workshops, curricula and programming to promote healthy coping skills.

To address this issue, Henry penned an advocacy letter to TCU Chancellor, Victor Boschini, Jr., and the Fort Worth Independent School District, urging the establishment of mental health days for students.

“Currently, sick days are accepted for cold and flu symptoms, but the term ‘mental health days’ is met with disapproval,” said Henry. “My objective is to highlight the global crisis, garner support for students and combat the stigma associated with mental health.”

Henry also explained that previous research has revealed how familial stigma hinders proper care of mental health, leading to tragic outcomes like mental health-related deaths during the pandemic.

For Henry, this research marks just the beginning. She aims to continue advocating for ongoing research to drive the creation of resources and implementing changes that support campuses and remove barriers hindering student access to mental health support.

She is currently in the process of preparing a submission to the McNair National Research Journal, submitting an article to the Honors College at TCU and preparing to present this research at the Council on Social Work Education annual program meeting in October.

Henry is committed to continuing this research in graduate school, with plans to apply to the Master of Social Work program and, eventually, the Ph.D. in Health Sciences programs at TCU.