Just Call Me “Lab Rat”: The awesome benefits of becoming a research participant

“Research shows…”

How many times have you heard those words before? Do you ever wonder how, exactly, researchers can come to those conclusions?

Well, one major part…could be you.

It’s possible to research anything and everything, of course, alive or not. When it comes to mental health, though, research usually needs to involve real people. Participants. And becoming one of those participants can actually have some surprising benefits.

My first exposure to the research process happened while I was in elementary school. I had terrible, debilitating migraines when I was younger. I think it was somewhere during the process of visiting neurology specialists at the children’s hospital that we found out about a drug trial for a medication that researchers were hoping would prevent migraines. After I was accepted as a participant, I was sent home with a binder full of forms to log my headaches, and fancy packets of pills that were labeled by the day I was supposed to take them. I was even paid for participating.

The most awesome benefit of being a participant in that study, though, was that the medication worked. I had seen several doctors by that point. It hadn’t been until I started in the study, though, that a treatment had a significant impact. The trial medication actually helped prevent my migraines, and, in doing so, really improved my life. When the study ended, I was given the option of continuing the medication, and I did. My migraines are currently much milder and much less frequent, and though I no longer take the medication, I did for years.

A few months ago, I found out about another chance to be a participant in a research project, this time looking at an app for people with depression and/or anxiety. I jumped on the chance. As study wrapped up this week, I found myself thinking about all the benefits of participating in research, and wanted to share some of them here.

Benefits of being a research participant

1. It could mean access to the latest, cutting-edge treatments that would otherwise be inaccessible to you.

Some studies involve some kind of treatment, like the one I joined for my migraines. Joining that study when I was a kid meant getting access to an effective medication before it was on the market. Other research might involve different treatment methods, therapy modalities, lifestyle interventions, and so on. Though not all research is centered around treatments, participating in one that does has the potential to give you access to interventions that may, like in my case, change your life—and that would otherwise be inaccessible.

2. It may mean access to great care…that you don’t have to pay for.

Some medical studies (depending on their design and objectives) include doctor visits, diagnostic tests, and monitoring. Since medical care can be expensive in our country, free access can be a great benefit of being a research participant.

3. They may pay you.

Most studies that require some significant amount of your time include compensation—which often means money. What a great addition to all the other benefits of being a research participant!

4. Your experiences can help improve the lives of others.

Conditions like migraines or depression can be painful. When you choose to share those experiences with researchers, however, you are helping these things be less painful for others in the future. For one thing, individuals’ experiences simply help us learn more. In addition, they contribute to the development of newer, more effective interventions.

Think about a disease like diphtheria. In the past, the disease was feared, with the potential to cause consequences like heart failure, paralysis, and even death. Today, we have a vaccination for diphtheria, and, if someone hasn’t been vaccinated and does get it, we have antibiotics capable of treating it. Thanks to research, we have changed the landscape for this disease. We understand it better, can prevent it more effectively, and can treat it more successfully. Now just think about what it would mean to do that for a condition like depression! Those who participate in research are helping to make that happen.

5. You gain new knowledge.

Being a research participant is a chance to learn. Participating in that study as a kid taught me there was this whole world of investigation and study out there. The experience was part of what later lead me to do things like becoming a research assistant in college and complete a master’s degree. Being a research participant has taught me more about treatment options and about working with providers. Overall, being a research participant can be fascinating.

Now, here’s how you do it!

I found out about the study I just finished participating in from a website called ResearchMatch.org. They describe themselves as “a national effort to help ‘match’ willing individuals with research studies that may be of interest to them.” On the site, you can browse studies from across the US that are currently looking for participants. Their search options include looking for a certain disease or condition (like depression), as well as the option to search for studies that want healthy volunteers.

Another chance to become a research participant is signing up for the same study I just finished. As of this writing, they are still recruiting participants!

The study is testing an app for people with depression and/or anxiety. For half of the study participants (the half I got randomly assigned to), the app tracks your sleep, mood, how much time you spend at home, how much you walk during a day, and how much time you spend on your phone. For the other half, the app does all these same things, but also uses the data to give personalized suggestions on how to improve your mood. To participate, I used the app for 16 weeks. I was sent a check after every four weeks of using it, with a total compensation of $350.

If you are in the Salt Lake area, 18 or older, and experience depression or anxiety, you might just be able to participate. Interested? Email utahneuroimagelab@gmail.com or call or text 801-742-1517 and ask about the Health Rhythms research study.

Becoming a research participant has a lot of benefits, from the possibility of finding a new effective treatment for yourself to the opportunity to help improve others’ lives by sharing your experience. It might just be worth it to check it out.

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