Lumen Scholar Jordan DeVries ‘20 researching anxiety in teenagers and young adults

Jordan DeVries ‘20 and Assistant Professor of Psychology CJ Fleming are researching anxiety and help-seeking methods in high school and college students.

Lumen Scholar and Elon College Fellow Jordan DeVries ‘20 has always known she struggles with big changes. Feelings of overwhelming anxiety came to the surface when she started her first year at Elon, and she was later diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. That’s why when DeVries began researching topics for her Lumen Prize project, she knew that she wanted to study anxiety and help-seeking methods in adolescents and young adults.

DeVries received the Lumen Prize during the spring of her sophomore year. A new cohort of Lumen Scholars is selected each year, and each student receives a highly competitive award of $20,000 to support their research and travel needs. Lumen Scholars also work closely with a mentor over the course of their research.

DeVries is currently working on her research, titled “Young, Anxious, and Feeling Alone: An examination of the role of social influences in help-seeking for young adults with anxiety,” with her mentor, Assistant Professor of Psychology CJ Fleming. DeVries’ focus is on high school and college students and how they manage anxiety, and how their parents and peers help them with that stress.

For her research, DeVries contacted her former high school, Burlington Christian Academy, and sent a survey about anxiety to 46 students and their parents. The purpose of the survey was to examine the differences in the ways parents and their children view anxiety.

“I thought that that would be a really cool comparison that we could make because if we ask a 17-year-old something, and we ask their mom something, how close are their answers, truly?” DeVries said, adding that the perceptions were vastly different between the two groups. “So students say ‘I’m really anxious and the world is on fire,’ and parents say ‘No, no everything’s fine.’ We’re looking at the lines of communication, which clearly, something needs to change.”

As an Elon College Fellow, DeVries had already gone through the process of finding a mentor and matched with Fleming during her sophomore year. She asked Fleming to be her mentor for the Lumen project, as their interests aligned. “She was really interested in the support angle, and I really come at it from a help-seeking angle, and those two things fit together really nicely,” Fleming said.

Fleming says she has seen DeVries grow in several areas, but especially when it comes to working with others.

“She has had to have some difficult conversations, she has had to really persuade people to help us with our research, and she has had to be really mindful and intentional about understanding what other people are thinking and basically helping us to work together around issues that are important to both of us,” Fleming said.

Mental health can be difficult to discuss, and some people might be fearful of coming forward with their struggles, so DeVries hopes her research can shed some light on the topic.

“She is looking at a group of people who are historically underserved in the sense that a lot of times people with mental illnesses are afraid to talk about it and are afraid to reach out to other people,” Fleming said. “For some people, that’s genuine concern – there’s a lot of stigma, and there can be discrimination around mental illness.”

That difficulty extends to young people. Stress is common among teenagers, but does not always get the attention it deserves, DeVries says.

“Anxiety in teenagers is written off a lot at this point, I think, because everybody is kind of nervous and everybody’s kind of high strung, and adults tend to think that that’s just the way that it is and that’s just the way that it has always been,” DeVries said. “That’s true to an extent. College is scary, graduating high school is scary, all of these things are scary, but there’s a point where it’s not just ‘normal scary,’ but no one ever tells you that.”

Through Lumen, DeVries has been able to expand her research to further investigate the issue. She recently worked with the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and sent her survey to 400 people across the country. In the process, DeVries received an email from a NAMI participant, a father who had lost his son to mental illness, explaining that he wasn’t able to fill out her survey.

“I sent him back an email that said ‘I’m really, really sorry for your loss, I appreciate your attempting to fill out the survey,’ all of the pleasantries,” DeVries said. “He emailed me back and said something along the lines of ‘He was my hero, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, I wish something like this had happened before, maybe he would still be here.’”

She said that moment made her realize that her research had a genuine impact on others.

“They tell us at Elon all the time that we’re doing things that are important and we’re doing things that matter, but you hear it so many times that I feel like you hit the point where you don’t believe it, and it was really, really cool to realize that we actually get to do things here that change things,” she said.

In October 2019 DeVries received the North Carolina NAMI Youth Empowerment Award for her work with youth mental health. The recognition is one of the many ways her Lumen research has taken her beyond the classroom.

“This project has given me a lot of independence in my studies, which is something that I think not everybody gets the ability to experience,” she said. “This has shown me that academia lives outside of sitting in a classroom and taking tests.”

DeVries’ research also brings her back to her own struggles with anxiety, further proving to her that mental health is an important topic that needs to be studied.

“It makes a lot of my story worth it, if that makes sense.,” DeVries said. “It shows that a teenager with really bad anxiety can get into a good school, do cool things. Your anxiety doesn’t have to win.”

DeVries is currently working on the Elon College Fellows portion of her research. Next, she plans to pursue a master’s degree in applied behavior analysis and hopes to eventually earn her doctorate.