Major Differences in College Student Mental Health

Different college majors show different levels of mental health problems.

Posted Nov 29, 2018

It has been well-documented that college students experience high levels of mental health problems. And a number of risk factors for mental health problems have been identified, including family histories of mental illness, personality tendencies toward neuroticism, stressors involving finances, academic performance and living arrangements, unhealthy life styles and substance misuse, poor coping, minority status and perceptions of mistreatment and others.

These make sense given our understanding of how depression and anxiety develop. But a vulnerability factor that has not received much attention in the literature is choice of major. Do the various college majors differ in terms of how vulnerable individuals are to experiencing mental health problems? Sarah Ketchen Lipson and colleagues used the data from the large Healthy Minds Study and compared college majors on prevalence of mental health problems and treatment utilization.

They found significant and substantial differences across the undergraduate majors. The undergraduate major with the highest frequency of mental health problems? Art and design majors. The average point prevalence of any mental health problems across the entire sample was 33.9 percent. However, it was over 45 percent for the art and design undergraduates. Undecided majors were also at substantially higher risk (41.68 percent) than the average, as were students in the humanities (39.54 percent).

Undergraduate majors with the lowest prevalence rates were public health majors (28.29 percent), business majors (28.64 percent), and nursing majors (29.12 percent).

These are not trivial differences. The authors of the article speculated that perhaps art and design majors face particular challenges and stressors, including pressure to be creative and original or stemming from isolation in generating their products. They also note that there is a documented relationship between the creative arts and mental illness more generally.

The other college majors assessed and their frequencies were as follows: social sciences (34 percent), natural sciences (36 percent), engineering (32 percent), pre-law (36 percent), social work (37 percent), pre-med (38 percent), other (32 percent) and multidisciplinary (38 percent).

It is important to acknowledge that this study was correlational and had no data of the students prior to entering college, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about the causal link. Nevertheless, the data from this study strongly suggest that the college majors are not equal when it comes to mental health problems. Clearly, more research is needed to explore why that is. In the meantime, mental health awareness initiatives might be advised that those in the arts and humanities may be especially likely to benefit from outreach.

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