Assistant Professor of Psychology Hannah Lawrence researches how mental imagery plays a role in adolescent depression and suicide risk

TIDES Lab members

Hannah Lawrence (bottom right) and OSU students part of the TIDES Lab

By Jessica Florescu, CLA Student Writer - February 22, 2024

Mental health disorders have increased worldwide in the last decade by 13%, according to the World Health Organization. Rather than only adults, mental health issues affect every age group in one shape or form, including adolescents.

Someone who understands the psychological needs of young people very well is Hannah Lawrence, an assistant professor in the School of Psychological Science.  Early psychological intervention can help young people reach their full potential as they grow and set them on a better path for success. Through her research at the Translational Imagery, DEpression, and Suicide (TIDES Lab), Lawrence is focusing on research that can make a positive impact on the lives of young people.

“My interest in studying adolescent psychology stems from a love of working with young people,” said Lawrence. “ If we can intervene early and help adolescents with their mental health, we can set them on a better trajectory for the rest of their lives.”

The TIDES Lab focuses broadly on adolescent depression and suicide prevention, but with a particular interest in what role mental imagery plays.

Research has shown that when adolescents mentally imagine negative, hypothetical scenarios or even possibly attempting suicide, they are at a higher risk for developing depression/attempting suicide in comparison to thinking about these topics through verbal thoughts. Suicide is considered one of the leading causes of adolescent death; helping to mitigate this form of risk is crucial.

“Mentally imagining a positive future and using mental imagery to help regulate emotions after challenging experiences may be more helpful than the verbally-based strategies we often use in cognitive therapy.”

Intervention strategies can range from taking a mindfulness approach to changing variables within the  mental imagery to produce better outcomes. For example, imagining a caring family member or peer, changing the environment (like rain to shine), and modifying the end to the mental “movie.” The TIDES Lab research program helps assess the mental health of various adolescents over time by using techniques that include self-report questionnaires, computer tasks, and psychophysiological data. Additionally, Lawrence uses ecological momentary assessments, which is a tool to track how an adolescent’s mood/thinking patterns change over the course of a day. Each of these techniques help develop more accurate research data which can be used to further enhance and improve the lives of young people.

As unrelated as it may sound, Lawrence was originally a math major during her undergraduate studies at Davidson College, with the intention of either becoming a mathematician or a field hockey coach. A switch to psychology during her sophomore year put her on a course to receive her M.A. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Maine, complete residency at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, and a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School/McLean Hospital.

Lawrence  plays a big role in assisting with research programs and projects of her colleagues and Ph.D. students focused on adolescent depression, but perhaps her favorite and most rewarding project that she is a part of is the  REACH Youth Advisory Board. REACH is a collaborative effort by Lawrence and four other psychology colleagues around the country, where teens get together to discuss the mental health needs in their communities. The monthly discussions help to inform the research of Lawrence and her colleagues with the goal of ensuring research projects are accessible and equitable.

“I get to learn from adolescents with lived experience with depression, self-harm, or suicide,” said Lawrence. “They help us determine which research ideas to pursue next and how to make our studies the best they can be to help other adolescents.”

After years of experiential knowledge and hands-on research, Lawrence has gained insights into her own mental health recommendations for both adults and adolescents. “My first piece of advice is for the adults who care about, work with, or want to make those teens' lives better. Listen to teens! They are the experts in their own experiences and we as adults, researchers, or clinicians should be listening closely to learn more about their lives and what they think would help to improve their mental health.”

Lawrence’s suggestion for teens is to connect with at least one adult who they would feel comfortable sharing information about their mental health challenges and to be open with them. Finding meaningful hobbies, forming strong peer relationships, getting outside and active, and getting good sleep all help too and are also components to creating a healthy mindset. Lawrence’s compassion for adolescents shines through her work, which is discernible in the lasting impact  she has on the lives of those studied in the TIDES Lab and through REACH.