Psychology Major Studies Mental Health in Ghana

Just a few months ago, senior psychology major Joan Hicks had only a foggy concept of statistical analysis. Today, she is preparing to submit findings on the underreporting of depression in Ghana to an academic journal and she hopes to participate in an upcoming global conference on human biology.

“She really hit the ground running,” says mentor Josh Snodgrass, an anthropology professor who heads the UO’s Global Health Biomarker Laboratory, where Hicks is an intern. “In the course of two weeks she went from a basic understanding to being able to work with data. She’s getting engaged in the research process in an amazing way.”

As a requirement of being a McNair Scholar, a UO program that helps underrepresented students into graduate school, Hicks needed to present a research project at an undergraduate research symposium this past spring. She applied for an internship at the biomarker lab, where Snodgrass participates in a World Health Organization study on global aging and adult health. His involvement in the study gives Snodgrass access to reams of data. Hicks, who is minoring in global health and spent eight weeks in Zanzibar following her freshman year, knew she wanted her research to involve a non-Western country.

Hicks teamed up with Alicia DeLouize, a graduate student and lab worker who introduced her to the intricacies of running data through statistical analysis software. It was a strange, new world for Hicks, and it captivated her.

The first time we ran a statistical analysis, her eyes widened,” says DeLouize. “She said, ‘That’s it? The data is saying that?’ We got results nobody had seen before, from her analysis. Realizing she had the power to do that was really exciting for her.”

The data came from six countries, but Hicks focused on Ghana. She examined the relationship between stigma—negative attitudes toward mental health—and underreporting of depression. Before running her analysis, she hypothesized that participants more likely to stigmatize mental illness would have higher levels of depression, because they would avoid expressing their feelings.

But data analysis showed just the opposite. “Our results showed that higher levels of stigma were associated with lower levels of depression,” Hicks says.

Instead of feeling thwarted, Hicks was motivated to look further, and deeper. Broadening her frame of reference to the five other countries that participated in the study, she is coming up with varied results. She hopes to write a second paper on her findings this fall.

"We got results nobody had seen before. Realizing she had the power to do that was really exciting for her."

DeLouize attributes Hicks’ momentum to her willingness to immerse herself in her work. “The impact of what she has been able to do is very large because of her excitement and investment,” says DeLouize. “This level of focus and commitment is unusual for undergrads. It’s a lot of work, but she’s been very dedicated to putting a lot of effort in.”

Says Snodgrass, “Right now, she is like a kid in a candy store. All of a sudden there are all these options.”

Hicks, who grew up in Carson, California, says she is gratified to bring to her research much of what she has learned in life.

The youngest of eight siblings, this member of the class of 2020 will be the first in her family to graduate from a four-year university. In addition to her McNair scholarship, Hicks is supported by a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and a Global Education Oregon Ambassador Scholarship. She grew up immersed in family, and it wasn’t until she came to the university that she met peers who had little, if any, family support. “It was interesting to see that my normal isn’t what somebody else’s normal is,” she says.

Travel has also helped her glimpse other people’s “normal.” During her time in Zanzibar, Hicks met people from all over the world—Somalia, Denmark, Amsterdam, the Congo, and Rwanda. The experience, she says, “showed me how diverse other places can be.”

Hicks is bringing that experience to bear in her academic work. Though new to psychology research, Hicks already understands the relationship between cultural attitudes, findings, and even mental health diagnoses. Most psychology research today reflects Western approaches to the field, she says. “They’re not looking at how different and how diverse symptoms of mental health can be, globally. It’s important to look at different cultural influences in the manifestation and expression of different symptoms.”

Hicks spent July and August in Accra, Ghana, for an internship she arranged before joining the biomarker lab. Although this internship was unrelated to her ongoing psychology research, one of her goals during the trip was to immerse herself in the culture and find out as much as she could, informally, about attitudes toward mental illness and depression.

“What I really wanted to do is talk to people who live there, and bring that back to the study I’m doing now,” she says. “I want to get their perspective on stigma and depression. It helps me contextualize, instead of just looking at numbers on a screen.”

--Alice Tallmadge, MA ’87 (journalism), is contributing editor for Oregon Quarterly.

Joan Hicks

Hicks has been a leader with Black Women of Achievement, which provides social development and more for women of color. She participated in the 2018 photo exhibit, Don’t Touch My Hair, investigating the politics of hair. Wrote Hicks, “I resist racialized beauty standards because there shouldn’t be a set default for what beautiful looks like, because beauty comes from within.”