Mental Health Labels with Dr. Elise Assaf

COMM 410

By: Andrea Agustin, Emily Gumz, Charles Graham, Sarah Garreton

Dr. Elise Assaf is a professor in the Department of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. She primarily focuses her teachings on public relations and entertainment courses in the undergraduate program. Her research areas include communications, disability studies, public relations, and sports. Dr. Assaf obtained a B.A. in Communications with an emphasis in public relations, along with an M.A. in Communications, from Cal State Fullerton. In earning her Ph.D. in Education from Chapman University, Assaf wrote her dissertation, Hidden, Authoritative Power in Journalistic Representations of Mental Health Labels. 

When interviewing Dr. Assaf on this publication, we began by gathering background information on her research so that we may be able to understand the context of it. She explains that she started to delve into the topic of mental health from a research perspective because of her personal experience with it. Dr. Assaf shares that she has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and some of her family members also deal with mental health issues. At the beginning of her doctorate program, she was asked to write a paper on what she believed was impacting college students but was not being focused on. To this prompt, Assaf answered mental health because she has experienced it herself from a student perspective and could relate to it. It was this paper that guided her into a mental health concentration in her doctorate program. 

After deciding to do a multi-site case study, Assaf chose The Washington Post, New York Times, and USA Today for her research because they were some of the most popular publications across the United States. Initially, she wanted to include the LA Times, but there was a conflict of interest with one of her dissertation committee members whose husband was a high-ranking reporter at the LA Times. 

Assaf, E. A. (2020). Hidden Power: Journalistic Representations of Mental Health Labels [Doctoral dissertation, Chapman University]. Chapman University Digital Commons.

Hidden power that Dr. Assaf had in mind when conducting her research was authoritative powers, such as physicians, police officers, judges, and court officials, who are quoted when describing what an individual is going through from a mental health perspective. 

Dr. Assaf expresses that she is a storyteller and enjoys communicating through stories; therefore, she focuses on using qualitative methods in her research. She believes that she remembers information better when they are told in a story format and that others do as well. Assaf is not very interested in numbers, so she tends to avoid quantitative methods, although she can still manage some quantitative research. From her personal experience, she did not have professors who were able to communicate how to do quantitative research. Dr. Assaf says that she wishes she knew how to do quantitative research better because she believes there are a lot of studies that would benefit from having both qualitative and quantitative methods. Additionally, case studies, which are qualitative, intrigue Assaf because she enjoys delving deep into a person’s story and triangulating data in this way which she finds more interesting as a researcher. 

In order to complete the study, Professor Assaf had to be very upfront with her potential biases and how they might affect her research. As somebody who has struggled with mental health personally and has had family members with mental health diagnoses, she wanted to be careful in the ways she presented her findings. To do so, she made her biases clear with her committee. She thought about addressing her biases in the abstract of her work but ultimately decided against it as many of her advisors suggested that as it may skew a reader’s perception. Instead of interviewing people or collecting surveys, Assaf scoured databases, plugging in key terms and setting date parameters. 

In fact, she says, “PDFs were my best friend.”

In the future, Professor Assaf hopes to return to researching sports and athletics, specifically the mental health aspect of it. Social media has played a huge role in society and in the sports realm. She is interested in analyzing responses on social media to professional athletes who have chosen to step back due to mental health reasons. She also hopes to do this research on a multi-generational level.

Assaf, E. A. (2020). Hidden Power: Journalistic Representations of Mental Health Labels [Doctoral dissertation, Chapman University]. Chapman University Digital Commons.

The most challenging part when conducting her research was when she had to get approval from the committee. For example, if there were a topic she wanted to look into, such as mental health and social media, she would need to be very specific, and since she was new to the system, it was all unfamiliar to her. Another challenge is that the committee may introduce new rules that only apply after, which can cause more confusion when conducting research. A mistake she made while conducting her research was choosing a topic that did not interest her. She says it is more important to choose something you are interested in because if you do not enjoy the topic, there will be a lack of motivation to research and learn more about it.

As for changes, she said she would not change anything because she enjoyed the topic and found it relevant for her with personally experiencing mental health as well. Although she enjoys all the research and studies she has created and found so far, the only thing she would change would be to branch out, discover, and learn more about other topics that interest her. The most interesting finding she found was that social media played a massive role in its effect and impact on mental health. It seemed to have the most influence.  

The advice she shared if a beginner researcher just started researching for the first time would be to choose a topic you like and find interesting. Find out about the whys and how of that topic and delve deep into that topic. If the topic does not interest you, you will be less motivated to understand and learn more about it. She has a bachelor’s in communications and is a professor at California State University, Fullerton. She also has a master’s in communication at CSUF, in education with disability studies. Her interest is clear when it comes to her education. It helped her become a better professor and allowed her to get to where she is today.  

Dr. Professor Assaf agrees that California State University, Fullerton does a fine job of helping students with mental health struggles. She believes that the campus has a lot of great programs for the students, but for them to succeed, Dr. Professor Assaf thinks the communication is satisfactory. The reason why she feels this way is because of the number of commuter students. This campus “is a commuter school, so they don’t see or hear about the resources.” Dr. Professor Assaf wants to have these beneficial and important resources exposed to the students even more than it already is. The system and the quality of the assistance are something she is proud of, but the exposure can be worked on. 

Dr. Professor Assaf believes that the main reason why we see mental health on the rise is not that more people are diagnosed, it’s more that people are discussing it. They are talking about their own mental health issues in common conversations. She sees students and her own peers feel more comfortable talking about their struggles, whether it is constant or temporary. However, Dr. Professor Assaf will admit that COVID had increased mental health issues and that daily struggles like school, work, and relationships are still causing a lot of distress. 

When answering this question, Dr. Professor Assaf emphasized a “case by case basis” in regard to what solutions can be beneficial to those who struggle with mental health. She explains that all of the struggles that come with mental health are personal, and each individual experiences them differently. She does think that a universal solution would be for everyone to talk openly about their troubles if they feel comfortable. It is the most important step in finding solutions and the help that someone needs. Dr. Professor Assaf also wanted to highlight that “there are different levels on how someone can help.” Whether it is being a listener or someone that finds a professional for the person that needs guidance, anything would be a valuable step.

Social media was her answer for the medium that has the most influence and effect on mental health. Dr. Professor Assaf explains that it has increased the number of issues she sees her students have just in the last couple of years. She believes that social media is a great resource and has a lot of useful information, but the influence and effect on people’s mental health are rising exponentially.

Interview with Dr. Assaf

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