Research Initiation: Development of a Survey Instrument to Identify Mental Health Related Help-Seeking Beliefs in Engineering Students

Grants and Contracts Details


Overview. National data show that engineering students with mental health concerns are significantly less likely to seek professional help than their peers. While cisgender men, people of color, and first- generation students are less likely to seek help in the general student population, such help-seeking disparities are further pronounced in the field of engineering. Additionally, mental health concerns persist past graduation, with engineers falling in the top five occupations with highest suicide rates. Development of interventions targeted at reshaping engineering identity to be supportive of mental health related help- seeking could improve success and retention of at-risk students. Furthermore, increased willingness to seek help post-graduation could improve mental health in the engineering workforce. As a result, this project aims to use a mixed methods approach to develop and refine an instrument to identify key beliefs associated with mental health help-seeking in undergraduate engineering students. The integrated behavioral model (IBM) is an empirically-supported social scientific framework that provides a mixed methods approach for identifying the belief-based factors associated with behavioral intention. A key component of the IBM is the use of qualitative interviews that eliminate the need for researcher assumptions associated with the behavior. As a result, Objective 1 is to identify factors associated with help-seeking in undergraduate engineers at the University of Kentucky through interviews with a diverse student population (n = 30). Interviews will undergo coding and thematic analysis to identify emergent themes and beliefs. Objective 2 is to design and refine a powerful quantitative research instrument that reflects the lived experiences of these students. The instrument will undergo iterative pilot testing (n1 = 20; n2 = 300) to ensure reliability, validity, and clarity for diverse engineering students. The product of this proposal will be a robust research instrument that can be used to identify significant beliefs predictive of help-seeking intention in undergraduate engineering students. Through collaboration with educational psychologist PI Ellen Usher and counseling psychologist PI Joseph Hammer, this proposal will expose engineering PI Sarah Wilson to the educational and social science research methods necessary to further her goal of becoming a scholar in engineering education. Intellectual Merit. Previous work on mental health related help-seeking has been limited by poor conceptual/theoretical framing, convenience sampling, and/or examination of a narrow set of factors, most of which are not amenable to change through intervention. Additionally, recent mental health- related funding in engineering has been broad, with focus on further characterization of the mental health problem and its effect on student outcomes. This study was developed based on national data identifying a mental health related treatment-gap in engineering undergraduate students. The targeted mixed-methods study will significantly advance knowledge by identifying belief-based factors that influence help-seeking among diverse engineering students. Results will provide momentum for further funding opportunities (e.g., NSF IUSE) to allow for large-scale survey implementation, and development and assessment of interventions targeted at the underlying beliefs that drive help-seeking behavior. Additionally, the resulting instrument could be more broadly implemented to examine generalizability to engineers in the workplace and educational settings with varying geographic, demographic, and institutional profiles. Broader Impacts. A theory-driven investigation into help-seeking beliefs can inform prevention and intervention efforts within and beyond the engineering discipline and at similar institutions nationally. Reshaping engineering identity to include willingness to seek help and encourage others to seek help for mental health could reduce student psychological distress, thereby increasing student success through college and into the workplace. This is particularly important for students who have been historically marginalized in engineering, underrepresented in the engineering workforce and at higher risk for mental health concerns. Results will be distributed via peer-reviewed interdisciplinary academic journals, conference presentations and workshops. Additionally, an interactive website will be developed with targeted communications toward (1) the general scientific community, (2) engineering educators, advisors and administrators, and (3) the engineering student body at UK and other institutions.
Effective start/end date8/1/208/31/24


  • National Science Foundation: $219,479.00


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