With the COVID-19 national public health emergency officially coming to an end just two weeks ago, members of UCLA’s class of 2023 will be the first to graduate having spent most, if not all, of their academic years living through a pandemic — and all the uncertainties, anxieties, and physical and mental health challenges that has entailed.
Among those graduates will be fourth-year psychology major Leah Likin, who has mined these experiences for her highly original and deeply personal honors capstone project, which has won a Dean’s Prize for Excellence in Research and Creativity as part of UCLA’s current 10th annual Undergraduate Research Week.
Likin’s experiences and, in particular, her struggles with mental health during the pandemic — which at their worst necessitated inpatient psychiatric treatment — served as a springboard for the ambitious project, which in addition to more traditional research and data collection also incorporated poetry, personal writing and art.
The goal, she said, was not only to explore the factors that led to her mental health crisis in August 2022 but, importantly, to focus on and quantify how these same factors had affected others during the pandemic. So she began compiling data that would tell that story.
“I just researched things that affected me deeply and affected my family dynamic,” she said.
As part of her project, Likin interviewed 15 people, ranging in age from 20 to 86, about a number of topics, including COVID-19, mental health, climate change, perception of time and the use of smartphones — the last of which she refers to as “handheld digital spaces … that have complicated what it could mean to be present, to be connected, and to communicate meaningfully.”
Through these interviews, Likin was also able to begin to unpack her own mental health burdens, like her addiction to her smartphone, her long-held insecurities and body-image issues from growing up with social media, and the anxiety she felt about waste and the environment — all of which she said were amplified tenfold during the pandemic. She recalled being so concerned about waste while living in student housing that, for her meals, she began eating the remaining food from others’ trays and the waste conveyor belt in the dining halls to offset students’ waste.
“My worries about material waste are related to a deeper fear of wasted time, of not doing or being enough in the time that I have,” said Likin, who through the project sought to address how experiences in, and of, time are inextricably linked to mental well-being.
She opens her project’s written component with poetry and a personal essay about how those anxieties ultimately evolved into suicidal ideation and her “5150” — California code for the involuntarily detainment and psychiatric hospitalization of those in a mental health crisis who are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. Ultimately, she entered intensive outpatient program and, as she relates in her project, “thanks to time, medication, therapy, love and support” was able to improve.
“It was interesting to explore my sense of loss and my sense of belonging during that time, and also my growth and sense of identity,” she said.
“It's not a distant academic subject, it's something that many of us go through,” said Likin’s advisor, Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare and education.
Likin, who is also minoring in public affairs and environmental systems and society, said she was inspired by how Astor would often read his poetry about his mental health struggles and those of his family in his multidisciplinary course “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools.” After Likin opened up to him about her own mental health journey, Astor encouraged her to consider autoethnography — a form of autobiographical academic writing she enjoyed — as a way to intersect the humanities with her ambitious research goals.
“I love the fact that she rooted this in her own life and her own network and experience but then brought everything together and reversed the research process,” Astor said of Likin’s project, which in its final weeks also sprouted a new component — an art show — to complement the writing.
Likin utilized UCLA’s MakerSpace, a high-tech campus workshop free to students, to construct a giant laser-cut clockface from cardboard, wood and pages from her planner — “moments in, and units of, time,” she called them. Another piece, a tower of recycled Styrofoam, includes dozens of little cabinets containing items like antidepressants spilling from a pill bottle, cellphone parts, USB cords, face coverings, written words and diagrams meant to encourage viewers to consider their ability to repurpose trash and challenge ideas about waste and wasted time.
The symbolic art, said Astor, could have been a capstone project on its own.
“In my 30 years of being a professor — at the University of Michigan, the University of Southern California and all the other places, and here at UCLA — I've never had a student do that, let alone an undergraduate,” he said. “I hope other people look at it and read it and learn from it, particularly around issues of mental health.
“But it goes beyond that. What I like about it is that it ripples into the fabric of our society in parts that we may need to reconsider and rethink in our own lives.”
Learn more about Likin’s capstone project, which will be on view weekdays through June 16 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Hillel at UCLA building at 574 Hilgard Ave.
Likin, who participated in the UCLA Prison Education Program, which makes post-secondary education accessible to currently incarcerated women and young people, has dedicated the exhibit to the women incarcerated in the federal prison in Victorville, California, who, she said, “can’t speak or move freely through time and digital or physical space like we can.”