Mental health — it can be hard to maintain for many college students when dealing with a full-time schedule. Yet, it’s proving to be a silent, ever-growing issue, especially within one of the most rigorous programs at Cal Poly: the College of Engineering.
For students like biomedical engineering junior Gavin Farac, there is a constant feeling of anxiety and stress over the classwork that lingers in the back of his mind.
“I spend hours doing work outside of class, constantly, just on my mind, stressing over it,” Farac said. “Even at times, I can go to the gym and hang out with friends, it’s always in the back of my mind thinking about the next test I have.”
Recently, computer engineering professor Andrew Danowitz collaborated on a study examining mental health in the engineering departments of eight universities across the country.
The project began in 2019 by having engineering students answer patient health questionnaires. Those that provided their contact information were later called upon an interview regarding their mental health. Highlights from the information collected through interviews and the questionnaire in 2019 were recently published on Cal Poly’s College of Engineering news page, CENG Connection.
“We did have all that great 2019 data though, and we used that,” Danowitz said. “We analyzed that by itself just to provide a baseline for what does mental health in the engineering programs look like during quote-unquote normal times non-pandemic times.”
That data had some revealing information: although engineering students don’t appear to be at a higher risk of struggling with their mental health compared to other majors, they are less likely to receive help for their mental health problems.
A factor that some say fuels this is timing, as the course load for the engineering program gives students little time for anything else in life. Aerospace engineering junior George Harrison found this to be a huge issue for himself during fall quarter.
“There was a few nights I would spend, like, in a week in the library for 13 hours. Like I’d just show up at like 8 a.m. and I’d stay here until 12 a.m.,” Harrison said. “And that was really mentally draining on me. But, you know, that’s what I had to do in order to pass my classes.”
Harrison, who wanted to get on the Dean’s List last quarter, was solely dedicated to his academic work, sacrificing his social life and isolating himself in the process. He only had time to talk to his girlfriend after getting home late from the library, and both she and his friends had become concerned.
“She told me to go see a therapist, but I just kept telling her ‘I just don’t have the time,’” Harrison said.
Farac also has trouble finding the time to do things he loves, like going to the gym or spending time with friends.
“I’m not able to get that work-social balance or academic and social balance, and it just pushes too much toward the academic side,” Farac said.
Another contributing factor behind engineering students not receiving proper mental health resources is the engineering culture. For engineers, there is an expectation that stress is a necessary part of the program, and students essentially sign up for it when they become engineering majors. Harrison said it’s almost a “rite of passage.”
“If you want to get through engineering, you have to constantly be feeling stressed out,” Harrison said. “And I think some people might embrace that and therefore not seek out mental health resources.”
Because of this expectation, it’s also harder for engineering students to be taken seriously when it comes to mental health issues. Danowitz noticed this was a problem in his research.
“We’ve had students report to us as part of these interviews that they’ve gone to counseling centers and the counselor has dismissed them,” Danowitz said. “Saying, you know, ‘well, your problem is you’re just an engineering student, so once you graduate or leave the program, things will get better for you.’”
Danowitz proposes that the faculty within the College of Engineering can help students by offering accommodations for those that are struggling. Faculty can also encourage better habits for students, including better sleep schedules, as well as assigning earlier due dates and coordinating with other faculty on reducing project loads or staggering assignments. He also proposes that the department can additionally be open about its own struggles.
“If we could be more open about our struggles, the times we failed, that might go a long way in helping students and others go through their own struggles,” he said.
For anyone struggling with mental health, students can find resources as well as counseling services on the Campus Health and Wellbeing page.