The Importance of Culture in Educational Programs
Culture, including shared beliefs and perceived norms, can be invisible to those in it, yet powerful and persistent. We sought to examine the experiences of undergraduate engineering students with stress and mental health through a cultural lens to understand how shared understandings influence student behavior, and, importantly, how we might intervene as educators to support student wellbeing.
Overall, the normalization and shared expectations of high stress and poor mental health in engineering as perceived by students will be important to dismantle to support student wellbeing.
Stress of the Engineering Workload
We found that engineering students overwhelmingly described the heavy workload in engineering to be a major stressor. Students indicated that the workload differentiated engineering students from other majors on campus. These beliefs about engineering as distinct from other disciplines reinforced narratives of enduring hardship in engineering and the necessity of unrelenting persistence through extreme stress.
Barriers for Students to Seek Help for Mental Health Concerns
Our study identified three main types of barriers for engineering students to seek help for mental health concerns: (1) physical, (2) informational, and (3) cultural.
Students described physical barriers of not being able to get a timely appointment with campus counseling services and related challenges to accessing services. In addition, students described limits on their own time, particularly to access services on another part of campus, as a strong deterrent to using services.
Despite students being aware of campus counseling services, students described informational barriers of not knowing details about how to access services or understanding processes, often admitting that while they knew the information had been presented to them at some time during their education, the information was not readily available when they most needed it.
Importantly, cultural barriers were described by students who explained that high stress and poor mental health was not only normal, but necessary, for success in engineering. These perceived norms were cited by students as a reason to not seek help for themselves since they felt that all students were experiencing this level of distress and that it was an expected component of an engineering education.
Reliance on Peers
The emphasis of shared understanding from students was further evident in students’ reliance on peers for coping. Students described that since only their peers could truly understand their experience, that peers were their main source of coping with a mental health challenge on campus—not advisors or instructors.
Implications for Engineering Programs
Overall, the normalization and shared expectations of high stress and poor mental health in engineering as perceived by students will be important to dismantle to support student wellbeing. Integration of wellness activities, scaffolding academic work, increased education and informational campaigns for mental health, and peer advocacy may be part of the solution for changing the engineering culture of stress to one of wellness.