Malleable mental health factors in undergraduate engineering students




Jonietz, Erika Lee

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Government and industry leaders warn regularly of shortages of engineers and scientists needed to sustain economic growth; worldwide billions of dollars are dedicated to projects designed to increase the number of workers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, including programs designed to improve post-secondary STEM education. Despite this, college represents a major point of attrition: in the United States, fewer than 40% of students who enroll planning to major in a STEM discipline complete a related degree. Conventional theories of college student retention focus on classroom practice, faculty and staff development, and improving the transition of low-income students from community colleges to four-year programs. However, more recent models of college retention address sociological, economic, and psychological factors. The latter suggest modifiable factors and skills such as social connection, coping techniques, and self-attributions may provide more effective targets for retention programs. A widespread and longstanding belief exists that engineering students differ notably from non-engineers on such psychological factors and also experience higher levels of stress and distress. However, there is a dearth of research into these questions. This study sought to address this gap by exploring differences in the well-being and experiences of distress and suicidality among a national sample of undergraduates studying different fields. It also probed the relationships between undergraduates’ well-being, experiences of distress and suicidality, and three malleable mental health factors, that is, factors amenable to improvement with intervention. The variables examined in this study are perfectionism, social connectedness, and coping self-efficacy. Using structural equation modeling, the study tested hypothesized relationships between perfectionism, coping self-efficacy, and social connectedness and distress and suicidality. In addition, t-tests, multiple linear regression, and correlational analyses were used to examine differences between engineering students and all other undergraduates on well-being, distress and suicidality, perfectionism, social connectedness, and coping self-efficacy. Results indicated overall well-being mediates known connections between perfectionism, coping self-efficacy, and social connectedness and distress and suicidality in both engineering students and those studying other fields. Differences between these groups were observed in levels of overall well-being but not distress and suicidality. Engineers and other students also showed differing levels of social connectedness and certain aspects of perfectionism and coping self-efficacy. These findings may help explain observed differences in engineering students’ mental health and provide targets for retention programs.


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