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Engineering Better Mental Health Solutions with Sarah Wilson

October 07, 2020

Engineers are often tasked with solving complex problems, and one of their most important tools in finding a solution is their own creativity.

Ingenuity — that’s exactly what Sarah Wilson would need when confronted with a public health issue in her field.

By Lindsey Piercy

Wilson, a chemical engineering lecturer in the College of Engineering at the University of Kentucky, was attending a conference when she learned of a unique challenge that would require an even more unique solution.

“I became interested in research on engineering student mental health after an open discussion forum at an engineering education conference,” she recalled. “It was clear that many of the engineering faculty in the room were concerned about undergraduate student mental health, but they weren’t sure the best way to support their students.”

Anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns are more common in college students than some may realize. For an increasing number of first-year students, the culture shock can have serious consequences. In fact, a study by the American Psychological Association found that 1 in 3 teens faces a mental health disorder during their freshman year.

In an attempt to create awareness and provide support, Wilson returned to Lexington determined to help at-risk students.

“I have always been passionate about undergraduate education and doing all that I can to aid in the success of my students,” she explained. “When it comes to mental health, I hope that this project helps us to understand more about how we can help our students and improve their mental well-being.”

But Wilson admits — this project is outside of her comfort zone, so she enlisted the expertise of UK faculty members Joseph Hammer and Ellen Usher.

Hammer is an associate professor and director of training in the Department of Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology in the College of Education, while Usher is a professor and program chair in the Department of Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology.

The team is working to design a study that looks specifically at mental health in the undergraduate engineering student population. “While the research methods will be something that I learn from them as we progress through this project, the problem-solving strategy will be just like problem solving for any engineering problem,” Wilson said.

First, they have to identify the problem.

From the limited data currently available, Wilson, Hammer and Usher found that engineering students aren’t necessarily more likely to have a mental health concern, but they are significantly less likely to seek help than non-engineering college students.

This treatment gap became the basis for their National Science Foundation (NSF) grant proposal titled, “Development of a Survey Instrument to Identify Mental Health Related Help-Seeking Beliefs in Engineering Students.” 

“As I developed as an instructor and attended conferences that focused on research in engineering education, I started to develop my own research goals," Wilson said. "It’s been exciting to see my vision for research in engineering education gain traction and support.”

The researchers will use the $199,000 NSF award to answer a critical question — why aren’t engineering students seeking help for mental health concerns?

“Our goal at the end of this project is to have a tool that will allow us to measure the beliefs that engineering students have related to mental health related help-seeking,” Wilson explained. “To do this, we first need to interview a diverse group of engineering students to understand their attitudes toward help-seeking.”

The results will allow for the development of interventions targeted at changing those specific beliefs and ultimately improving student mental health.

“As an example, our measurement tool could tell us that engineering students don’t believe that seeking help for a mental illness will improve their mental well-being,” Wilson continued. “If this is the case, we could develop interventions specifically targeted at teaching students about the effectiveness of treatment for improving mental health.”

As Wilson — and the team — strive to find solutions, she’s also calling on the campus community to do its part.

“In a university setting, we need to be advocates for our students, for our friends and for our classmates. If you are concerned about the mental health of someone that you know, it’s important to let someone know.”

Be aware of any behavioral changes ⁠— withdrawing, skipping classes or other activities, and increased use of alcohol and other drugs. Students often self-medicate in an effort to feel less distress. Also, be on the lookout for significantly increased or decreased communication with significant persons.

If you’re feeling anxious or have concerns, you’re not alone. Students, faculty and staff are encouraged to reach out to the UK Counseling Center. At UK, support can range from peers and faculty, academic advisors and coaches, residence life professionals and student organizations.

Additionally, If you or someone you know is at risk, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text 741-741.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Science Foundation under Award Number 2024394. The opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.