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The unraveling mental health of Drexel STEM students | The Triangle
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The unraveling mental health of Drexel STEM students

Photo collaboration by Satvik and Becca | The Triangle

From endless homework assignments to nearly every week of the Drexel University term being “midterms week,” STEM students are no stranger to the hustle and rigor of their field. STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, is a field that reinforces critical thinking and problem solving. 

An American Psychological Association survey of graduate students around the United States found “60% of students report academic pressures, financial debt, or overall anxiety as significant stressors.” 

In the past few decades there has been an increasing trend of “burnout as an occupational phenomenon” that society has learned to accept as the nature of the profession. 

As a field, STEM constitutes one of the largest percentages of individuals who go beyond their high school or bachelor’s degree to pursue higher degrees of education. The National Science board describes the Science and Engineering enterprise of the country as being highly constituted by recipients of higher degrees of education. 

A conducted poll of the Drexel STEM student population provided a few key insights into the culture and feelings of students in the field. Views on topics such as Drexel’s unique combination of the co-op program and quarter system were assessed in students across all five undergraduate years with a variety of STEM majors, including but not limited to biomedical engineering, computer science, environmental science, biology and user experience and interaction design. Many of the respondents were on Drexel’s popular five-year, three co-op plan of study, where students alternate between six months of study and full-time work for their last three years of college. Additionally, 58.3 percent of the 60 respondents indicated an interest in pursuing a higher degree after their undergraduate education, with 81 percent of respondents indicating that the higher degree contributed to some sort of negative effect on their mental health. 

Of the polled students, specifically concerning Drexel’s quarter system, 75 percent of respondents indicated the quarter system having a somewhat or very significant negative impact on their mental health. Probing further, respondents were given the opportunity to provide a written response to their rating. Throughout the 60 responses, there were common trends in the reasons that many people seemed to be negatively affected by the quarter system. Keywords included “large workload,” “lack of flexibility” and “fast-paced nature of the quarter system.” 

The vast majority of respondents indicated that their extracurricular workload surpassed that of their already packed class schedule, generally consisting of difficult science and math classes. Students described a general lack of motivation, living in the bubble of their own classes and schedule without many instances to socialize. Students feel rushed or stressed about the impending exams or assignments that inevitably come up every week, another attribute the quarter system provides. 

While these issues are certainly prevalent within the Drexel community, the university has allocated resources such as Counseling Services that offer individual therapy, workshops and referrals. Poll respondents were assessed on their level of awareness of these services. 58.3 percent of respondents indicated that they did not feel like they were made aware of the mental health services offered by the university. Additionally, 78.8 percent of total respondents agreed that the resources provided did not properly support the unique needs of them and their STEM peers. 

Second-year computer science student and current co-op student Lydia Mathew had a few insights into what the university could implement to combat the issues that are prevalent within the STEM population at Drexel. 

Mathew suggested the incorporation of “peer support networks, mental health services specifically within STEM departments, flexible courses to accommodate the busy extracurricular schedules of students, and work-life balance promotion throughout the student’s educational career.” 

The key to the programs she proposed was the implementation of them within the specific STEM departments, whether it be the College of Arts and Sciences or the School of Biomedical Engineering. Tailoring resources specifically to students in plans of study such as pre-med or engineering can allow the university to address unique issues that students in each field may face. 

An example of this is the Biosciences Mental Health Support program that was recently implemented at Stanford University “addressing some of the challenges surrounding Mental Health and Wellness for Biosciences PhD students.” 

The program assists in the funding of mental health care for students, something which poses a significant barrier to many students who seek constant mental health services but may not be able to afford them. 

When implemented properly, these solutions can effectively tackle issues like anxiety, depression and burnout commonly seen in STEM students. 

This article is part of a grant awarded to The Triangle from the Solutions Journalism Network investigating student mental health at Drexel University.