Workforce Blog: Focus on Engineers' Mental Health

Workforce Blog: Focus on Engineers' Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and ensuring that engineers at all levels of their careers receive the mental health care they require remains an ongoing battle.

According to the American Psychological Association, mental health among college and university students is on the decline: As many as 60 percent of students would meet criteria for one mental health problem. It’s a reality that's hitting the engineering space particularly hard. 

California Polytechnic State University professor Andrew Danowitz and Kacey Beddoes of San Jose State University surveyed engineering students at just eight universities about their mental health in 2020 and found that 66 percent of those students had symptoms of at least one mental health condition, but only 24 percent were officially diagnosed. That's compared to a general population diagnosis rate at those eight universities of 37 percent.  

Although the numbers paint a stark picture, educators, students, and professionals are realizing the need for more dialogue and action.  

Just ahead of Mental Health Awareness Month, Purdue University launched its new CARES (Community, Assistance and Resources for Engineering Students) Hub that will offer specialized support for engineering students’ mental health needs

The April 24, 2024, grand opening officially kicked off this student-led initiative, led by the Purdue Engineering Student Council (PESC). PESC members set out to create a designated place to support mental well-being, exclusively for engineering students and embedded within the College of Engineering. 

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Purdue's CARES Hub is centered on making health services more approachable while also reducing the stigma of seeking mental health services. The program has peer counselors, overseen by a trained clinician, and provides meditation classes, art therapy, and other services. 

“Engineers are taught to think technically, and, in doing so, the brain is rewired to promote a more reasoning-based approach when responding to conflicts, both internal and external. Often this leads to dismissal of emotions and a resistance toward vulnerability,” said Kendall Gibson, member and head of the PESC’s Well-Being Committee in the announcement. “The CARES Hub allows us to tailor a well-being initiative that appeals to this science-based way of thinking. This is what sets the CARES Hub apart.” 

Programs like this would be vital tools at engineering schools and even in professional settings, given the high stress and fast pace of education and careers in engineering and the likelihood issues to arise. 

But the reality is that engineering students with mental health concerns are less likely to seek professional help than students in other disciplines, according to a recent study. Researchers from the University of Kentucky and the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science outlined their findings in “Mental health in undergraduate engineering students: Identifying facilitators and barriers to seeking help,” published in The Research Journal for Engineering Education

Engineering is one of many fields that has a widely normalized “culture of stress” at both the academic and professional levels thanks to factors such as rigorous training and education requirements as well as rigid deadlines and time management challenges. Mental health concerns vary by population, the researchers found, and higher rates exist among first-generation and female engineering students. 

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“In addition, engineering students who viewed their classrooms as competitive were more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression,” the report continued. “These adverse effects were more pronounced for students with marginalized identities, specifically female-identified and Black engineering students. This signals the importance of studying mental health in engineering, especially in marginalized student populations.” 

But even those engineering students who realize that they are experiencing mental health issues are less likely to seek treatment. “Only 25.1 percent of undergraduate engineering students self-reporting symptoms of mental health distress had received treatment in the past year, compared to an average of 39.4 percent of students for the overall college student population,” the authors found. “Further, although 28.4 percent of engineering students reported symptoms associated with a diagnosable mental health condition, only 16.4 percent had a diagnosis.” 

That treatment gap not only means these students are unlikely to find help, but they also don’t receive the necessary support to even get a diagnosis. The authors suggest that dismantling systemic barriers to accessing mental health treatment could lead to more engineering students seeking help. "Additionally, establishing mental health as a core value among existing cultural norms in the engineering learning environment could help normalize help-seeking and create improved learning conditions for future generations of engineers," the report added. 

Back at Cal Poly, a team of 14 Mental Health First Aid Certified responders, donning bright orange shirts for visibility, are making the rounds to ensure that their engineering students are getting the help they need. This program was designed by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, to teach these responders the risk factors, warning signs, and strategies to address mental health and addiction. 

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“I grew up in a generation where we didn’t talk about [mental health] so we never learned that other people were suffering,” said mechanical engineering lecturer Sarah Harding, who is one of these responders, in the announcement. “I started realizing that we as faculty are the first responders. We are the people who see students every day. Campus Health and Wellbeing is there, but they’re only there if students seek them out.” 

The certification guides instructors on how to navigate a wide range of mental health-related situations, such as panic attacks or suicidal thoughts and behaviors.  

“Engineering stakeholders must take an active and unified role in communicating that mental health is a priority,” the University of Kentucky/May Clinic paper emphasized. “They should advocate for increased funding to implement changes, such as mental health related programming within engineering departments, to shift engineering cultural norms. Additional research on the relationships between engineering culture, student mental health, and professional help-seeking is needed.” 

Debunking the perception that engineering is just supposed to be difficult and students and professionals must simply suffer their way through their education and careers could also go a long way toward improving mental health across the engineering field. 

Louise Poirier is senior editor.

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