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Addie Bjornson/University of Washington

Various types of discrimination can lead to changes in college students' daily activities and sleep quality and heighten their feelings of anxiety and depression, according to new research by the University of Washington.

The chronic mental and physical health implications of stress caused by discrimination have long been known by psychologists. But faculty members and doctoral students at Washington's Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering and the university's Information School sought to determine whether “unfair treatment” based on aspects of students’ identities impacted their day-to-day life, said Jennifer Mankoff, an engineering professor and co-author of the report released Nov. 4, "Passively-Sensed Behavioral Correlates of Discrimination Events in College Students."

“What we’re hoping, in the long run, is that this will allow us to build a better understanding of the short-term impacts and tie it to things like retention and mental health, and other parts of success,” Mankoff said.

On days when students experienced discrimination, they were more physically active and slept less, behaviors that sometimes continued into the day after the incident, researchers found. Students were also more likely to be using their cellphones on days when they were discriminated against, which Mankoff said distracts students from stressors and helps them cope.

Researchers surveyed participants twice each week -- and four times per day for two weeks -- in order to measure emotional responses to discrimination. Students reported increased feelings of frustration, anxiety, and depression when discrimination had occurred within a 24-hour period, and had heightened feelings of loneliness by the end of the study period,Mankoff said.

The study did not determine whether behaviors such as increased mobility and sleep directly correlate to stress from discrimination, Mankoff said. But it is notable that students’ activity levels changed around the time they said unfair treatment occurred and this leaves space for further research from the College of Engineering, she said.

“We don’t know what they experienced, but their experiences had consequences,” Mankoff said.

Ninety-one of the 209 first-year Washington students who participated in the study during winter and spring 2018 reported they were discriminated against at least one time based on national origin and ancestry, gender, disability, or sexual orientation, among other categories, according to the report. Students wore Fitbit watches to track the number of steps they took and monitor their sleep patterns over the course of the study and also recorded their cellphone use.

Race was not explicitly stated as a category of discrimination, which Mankoff called an “unfortunate oversight” by researchers. Students tended to report any incidents of racial discrimination under the ancestry or national origin category, Yasaman Sefidgar, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student in the Allen School, wrote in an email. Researchers included race as a separate discrimination classification in a spring 2019 cohort of the study, which is not included in the report published Monday, Sefidgar said.

Of the 448 total reports of discrimination, more than 70 reports referenced unfair treatment based on gender, and 73 percent of reports were from women, who made up slightly more than one-half of the study’s 2018 participants. Underrepresented students made up 9 percent of the study, and about 100 of the reports referenced discrimination based on national origin or ancestry.

The researchers sought out participants who are students of color, women and the first in their family to attend college, and 40 percent of participants were enrolled in the engineering school, according to the report. This was to specifically identify levels of discrimination against minorities and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors, or STEM fields, where there has historically been disproportionate and documented gender and racial discrimination, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Engineering is a place where we want to see increased diversity,” said Mankoff, who was recently selected to be the engineering school’s associate chair of diversity and inclusion. “We know that there needs to be work done there, and there is work being done there. It was a natural focus.”

Sefidgar said the study is not representative of discrimination at Washington as a whole; the remaining 60 percent of participants were distributed throughout various other colleges. Sefidgar noted that there were only two participants with disabilities in the 2018 study cohort, and about 10 reports of discrimination based on ability were made.

The research of student behaviors and feelings in response to and about incidents of discrimination could help to inform university intervention and prevention efforts, the authors suggest. Similar research can also be used to evaluate programs that attempt to combat discrimination, Mankoff said.

The study’s participants were provided with information about university resources for mental health crises and trauma, but researchers did not direct all students who claimed they were “treated unfairly” to these resources because they lacked specific details about each instance of discrimination alleged, Victor Balta, a Washington spokesperson, wrote in an email. Balta suggested these students use the university's Bias Reporting Tool or seek resources through the university's counseling center, health services or Title IX office.

“UW has a number of resources available and support for students, staff and faculty who experience discrimination or bias incidents,” Balta wrote.

The researchers argue that “proactive” changes by institutions to improve inclusion in educational environments could increase students' emotional resilience to discrimination, the report states.

Researchers also evaluated students’ “resilience” in surveys at the beginning and end of the study period and asked students to affirm or negate statements such as, “I bounce back after hard times” and “I tend to get over setbacks in my life,” Mankoff said. Participants who displayed high resilience and had strong social support were least likely to display indicators of anxiety and depression, no matter how many incidents of discrimination they reported, she said.

“Our focus is definitely on … quantifying the impact of stress on students and validating that this is real,” Mankoff said. “If we can show how much it’s impacting people, maybe we can help make decisions on where resources can be spent and give people an understanding of why it’s important to consider a person’s background. They could be working under stressors that impact their ability to perform in a way that should be acknowledged.”

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