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Title: Identifying mental health related help-seeking beliefs in undergraduate engineers
There has been an alarming increase in the prevalence of mental health concerns amongst undergraduate students. Engineering students experiencing mental health distress are less likely to seek professional help than are non-engineering students. Lack of treatment can result in the escalation of mental health symptoms among engineering students. This study, supported by an NSF Research Initiation in Engineering Formation grant, focused on characterizing engineering students’ beliefs about seeking help for a mental health concern. Using the integrated behavioral model as a framework, 33 semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with engineering students from a wide range of majors, years of study, and social identity groups. Interviews were analyzed through deductive coding to identify key beliefs associated with help-seeking as defined by the integrated behavioral model. The beliefs identified include a desire among engineering students to fix their own problems, to avoid admitting imperfection, and fear of being seen by others when seeking help for a mental health concern. These results were used to create an engineering mental health help-seeking instrument containing items related to perceived outcomes/attributes, experiential (i.e., affective) beliefs, barriers/facilitators, and perceived norms associated with help seeking. This instrument is currently being refined through cognitive interviews, and pilot data will be collected to examine evidence of instrument reliability and validity. The finalized instrument will be used to identify those beliefs that are predictive of help-seeking intention and behavior. These beliefs are prime targets for future interventions designed to increase mental health help-seeking in the undergraduate engineering student population.  more » « less
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ASEE annual conference exposition
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National Science Foundation
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  1. Abstract Background

    Engineering students encounter high levels of stress, which may negatively impact their mental health. Nevertheless, engineering students who experience mental health distress are less likely than their peers to seek professional help, even when controlling for gender and race/ethnicity.


    We examined beliefs that undergraduate engineering students have about barriers and facilitators to seeking professional help for their mental health. We also sought to identify cultural and systemic factors within and beyond engineering that might affect help‐seeking. Together, these beliefs influence students' sense of personal agency around seeking mental health care.


    We implemented a pragmatic qualitative design that incorporated the integrated behavioral model to investigate engineering students' (N = 33) professional mental health help‐seeking beliefs. We used thematic analysis to analyze help‐seeking beliefs and perceived barriers and facilitators that students described during interviews.


    We identified four themes: Navigating the system impacts personal agency; sacrifices associated with help‐seeking act as a barrier; engineering culture acts as a barrier to help‐seeking; and student confidence in help‐seeking varies significantly. These themes portray the effect of perceived barriers and facilitators on students' personal agency for accessing mental health care. Our findings have implications for engineering departments and university counseling centers that want to minimize barriers to help‐seeking.


    Engineering stakeholders must improve access to professional help for engineering students. Implementing changes to normalize help‐seeking behaviors, enhance personal agency, and facilitate engagement with mental health resources will create better conditions for engineers. Further research is necessary to understand how other beliefs (e.g., attitudes, perceived norms) inform the relationships between student mental health, professional help seeking, and engineering culture.

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  2. Studies have shown that distressed engineering undergraduates are less likely to seek help for a mental health concern when compared to their non-engineering peers. To understand more about the factors that influence mental health related help seeking in undergraduate engineering students, a qualitative study was conducted based on the integrated behavioral model (IBM). Through this study, 33 students were asked about their beliefs related to seeking help for a mental health concern, as guided by the IBM. The current study aims to characterize the messages that students receive (either explicitly or implicitly) from engineering faculty and staff that might influence their thoughts around help seeking. After qualitative analysis, three common themes were identified: 1) Supportive explicit and implicit messages around help seeking are often tied to an individual faculty or staff member, 2) College level change around mental health is viewed positively if appropriately communicated, and 3) Students perceive lack of flexibility and empathy from faculty as not being supportive of student mental health. The results of the study provide guidance for how engineering faculty and staff can use explicit and implicit messaging to create an environment that is supportive of mental health and professional help seeking. 
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  3. Mental health concerns have become a growing problem among collegiate engineering students. To date, there has been little research to understand the factors that influence student mental health within this population. Literature on engineering student mental health supports the idea that engineering students experience high levels of mental health distress, which often stems from stressors such as academic workload, maintaining a strong grade point average (GPA), and pressure from parents and/or professors. Of particular concern, distressed engineering students are less likely to seek professional help when compared to students in other majors. As a result, a comprehensive study was conducted on engineering mental health help-seeking behavior. Through secondary analysis of the data from that study, this work aims to identify common perceived stressors that may contribute to mental health distress, as well as perceived coping strategies that may be used instead of seeking professional mental health help. A diverse group of 33 engineering undergraduate students were a part of the comprehensive study on engineering mental health help-seeking behavior. For this study, qualitative data was analyzed to address two specific research questions: 1) What are the main sources of stress that engineers have experienced in their engineering training? and 2) What coping strategies have students developed as an alternative to seeking professional help? Several common perceived stressors were identified including an unsupportive and challenging engineering training environment, challenges in time management, and academic performance expectations. Perceived coping strategies identified include relationships with family, friends, and classmates and health and wellness activities such as exercise, mindfulness, and maintaining spiritual health. The results of this work will be helpful in recognizing ways to improve engineering education and increase student support. 
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  4. High levels of stress and anxiety are common amongst college students, particularly engineering students. Students report lack of sleep, grades, competition, change in lifestyle, and other significant stressors throughout their undergraduate education (1, 2). Stress and anxiety have been shown to negatively impact student experience (3-6), academic performance (6-8), and retention (9). Previous studies have focused on identifying factors that cause individual students stress while completing undergraduate engineering degree programs (1). However, it not well-understood how a culture of stress is perceived and is propagated in engineering programs or how this culture impacts student levels of identification with engineering. Further, the impact of student stress has not been directly considered in engineering regarding recruitment, retention, and success. Therefore, our guiding research question is: Does the engineering culture create stress for students that hinder their engineering identity development? To answer our research question, we designed a sequential mixed methods study with equal priority of quantitative survey data and qualitative individual interviews. Our study participants are undergraduate engineering students across all levels and majors at a large, public university. Our sample goal is 2000 engineering student respondents. We combined three published surveys to build our quantitative data collection instrument, including the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (DASS), Identification with engineering subscale, and Engineering Department Inclusion Level subscale. The objective of the quantitative instrument is to illuminate individual perceptions of the existence of an engineering stress culture (ESC) and create an efficient tool to measure the impact ESC on engineering identity development. Specifically, we seek to understand the relationships among the following constructs; 1) identification with engineering, 2) stress and anxiety, and 3) feelings of inclusion within their department. The focus of this paper presents the results of the pilot of the proposed instrument with 20 participants and a detailed data collection and analysis process. In an effort to validate our instrument, we conducted a pilot study to refine our data collection process and the results will guide the data collection for the larger study. In addition to identifying relationships among construct, the survey data will be further analyzed to specify which demographics are mediating or moderating factors of these relationships. For example, does a student’s 1st generation status influence their perception of stress or engineering identity development? Our analysis may identify discipline-specific stressors and characterize culture components that promote student anxiety and stress. Our objective is to validate our survey instrument and use it to inform the protocol for the follow-up interviews to gain a deeper understanding of the responses to the survey instrument. Understanding what students view as stressful and how students identify stress as an element of program culture will support the development of interventions to mitigate student stress. References 1. Schneider L (2007) Perceived stress among engineering students. A Paper Presented at St. Lawrence Section Conference. Toronto, Canada. Retrieved from: www. asee. morrisville. edu. 2. Ross SE, Niebling BC, & Heckert TM (1999) Sources of stress among college students. Social psychology 61(5):841-846. 3. Goldman CS & Wong EH (1997) Stress and the college student. Education 117(4):604-611. 4. Hudd SS, et al. (2000) Stress at college: Effects on health habits, health status and self-esteem. College Student Journal 34(2):217-228. 5. Macgeorge EL, Samter W, & Gillihan SJ (2005) Academic Stress, Supportive Communication, and Health A version of this paper was presented at the 2005 International Communication Association convention in New York City. Communication Education 54(4):365-372. 6. Burt KB & Paysnick AA (2014) Identity, stress, and behavioral and emotional problems in undergraduates: Evidence for interaction effects. Journal of college student development 55(4):368-384. 7. Felsten G & Wilcox K (1992) Influences of stress and situation-specific mastery beliefs and satisfaction with social support on well-being and academic performance. Psychological Reports 70(1):291-303. 8. Pritchard ME & Wilson GS (2003) Using emotional and social factors to predict student success. Journal of college student development 44(1):18-28. 9. Zhang Z & RiCharde RS (1998) Prediction and Analysis of Freshman Retention. AIR 1998 Annual Forum Paper. 
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  5. Distressed engineering students are significantly less likely to seek professional help for a mental health concern when compared to their non-engineering peers. This represents a treatment gap, making engineering students at risk for escalation of symptoms to more significant and potentially chronic mental illness. To better understand the causes of this treatment gap, this study was designed to look at first-year engineering students’ perceptions of seeking help for a mental health concern. Self-report survey data was collected from 440 first-year engineering students during the first month of the Fall 2021 semester, including psychometrically sound measures of mental health help-seeking attitudes, perceived norms, personal agency, and intention developed in accordance with the Integrated Behavioral Model. Results show 12% of students self-report symptoms of moderate or higher depression and 14% moderate or higher anxiety. While these statistics are lower than the national averages for college students, breakdowns by gender showed that female students showed a higher prevalence of anxiety and depression compared to the corresponding national average. In general, students had positive attitudes, control, and self-efficacy related to seeking help for a mental health concern. Mean scores for help-seeking intention and perceived norms were lower, with 50% of distressed students indicating low intention to seek professional help if in distress. Results from this study provide insight into the key mental health help-seeking perceptions that could influence help-seeking intention in first-year engineering students. This could aid in identifying targets for interventions aimed at improving help-seeking within this student population. 
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