A thesis project, with help from the MCLA alumni community

Jake DaigneaultEvery year, the MCLA students who develop senior thesis projects put in hours upon hours of work through research, surveys, analysis, and writing. But a thesis isn’t completed in a vacuum; students work with faculty advisors and often involve the College community.

Jake Daigneault ’21, a psychology major with a minor in social work, knew he wanted to research online therapy as a thesis project. His thesis advisor, Assistant Professor of Psychology Sara Steele, worked with him to further focus his idea, and he’ll present his findings at the MCLA Undergraduate Research Conference, which takes place virtually on April 22.

Daigneault is pursuing graduate school and wants to be a clinical psychologist; for his thesis, he decided to look at attitudes around online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), comparing STEM and non-STEM students’ attitudes as well as perceptions around online CBT according to gender. He had read that 1 in 5 college students have some kind of psychological challenge, but that only 16 percent seek out mental health services. “I thought that was really concerning, and was wondering if accessibility had something to do with it,” he said. Maybe the availability of online CBT would decrease some of the stigma around seeking help, particularly for male students, who are statistically less inclined to access mental health services. 

CBT is a form of therapy that aims to solve a specific problem through defined steps that occur on a pre-arranged timeline. A patient aiming to improve social anxiety issues might work with a psychologist in eight steps over three months, with homework assignments to be completed between sessions. Daigneault asked survey respondents whether they felt they would be able to complete assignments and stay accountable through this process if it was conducted online rather than in person.

Daigneault knew he wanted to survey a diverse population. “I realized we have this whole alumni network potentially available to us,” he said. Steele and Daigneault reached out to the MCLA Alumni Office, which sent Daigneault’s survey out to the alumni community. He ended up with more than 400 responses—much higher than the usual number of survey respondents for senior thesis work. 

He found no significant difference between STEM and non-STEM majors in their perceptions of whether they would adhere to online CBT, but did find that males were less likely to perceive the process as beneficial compared to their female counterparts. “This supported our hypothesis about gender perceptions of therapy, and it will be an excellent point to make on addressing social stigma in male culture,” he said. 

“It’s really fun to see a student be so invested in a project that’s not just for a class,” said Steele, who only advises one senior on thesis work per academic year. “He came up with it, and at the end of the day it’s very rewarding to see the progress from ‘hey, I have an idea’ to ‘now I have a bunch of data.’”  

Daigneault said he’d like to keep this research going when he gets to grad school, and continue working to raise awareness around mental health in college student populations. “It’s a big thing for college life in general. Social support networks are valuable as you become an adult and manage your time and health,” he said.

“My research has also inspired my own progress in college,” he continued. “If you can help one person, that makes a difference—but with research, you’re helping people in the long run because you’re expanding the information available within the research community.” 

Learn more about MCLA's Undergraduate Research Conference here