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WILLIAMS, S N (2009). Depressive Symptoms in Relation to College Major. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 12. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved December 6, 2023 .

Depressive Symptoms in Relation to College Major
Department of Psychology University of Central Missouri

Sponsored by: PATRICIA MARSH (pmarsh@ucmo.edu)

The purpose of this experiment was to test the role of college major on depressive symptoms felt. Psychology majors (n=20) and Music majors (n=20) completed two short questionnaires: a demographic survey and the Zung Depression Inventory (Appendix 1). The results of the Zung inventory were averaged by major to suggest the resulting correlation. Gender, year in school, age, and current credit hours enrolled in were considered. The researcher hypothesized that Music majors would experience more depressive symptoms. The results indicated that while the average depression score was slightly higher for Music majors, Psychology majors were more likely to have received treatment.


Depressive Symptoms in Relation to College Major

In order to understand the significance of a potential correlation between college major and depressive symptoms, it is important to explore all aspects of college life and depressive symptoms. College years are known to be stressful and hectic. With papers due, tests to study for, homework to complete, classes to attend, and all life duties to continue carrying out, it can be an extremely difficult period to handle, mentally and physically. Different majors require different amounts of studying, homework, and in-class work, and therefore place different amounts of stress on students. For example, a college student majoring in Psychology will have an entirely different college experience than a student majoring in Music performance. Once the general education requirements have been met, the demands placed on each of the students are more than likely notably different from one major to another.

These stressful times often lead to thoughts of hopelessness, helplessness, restlessness, and sadness, all of which, according to Zung (1965, p. 63), are common symptoms of depression (Apendix 1). According to Compton, Carp, Fineman, Lin, Quandt, and Vargus (2008), “depression is typically characterized by a helpless style of thought and behavior, including a maladaptive focus on negative events” (p. 58). “Depressed people tend to respond poorly after mistakes and negative performance feedback” (Compton et al., 2008, p. 58). According to Zung (1965), other symptoms commonly experienced by depressed individuals include loss of appetite, loss of interest in favorite activities, fatigue, guilt, severe weight changes, and self-destructive and suicidal thoughts (p.63). This is a serious issue in today’s society. According to Peterson (2002), “North America’s college counseling centers report an increase in troubled students” (¶. 7). Depression is a highly troublesome disease, and suicide is a horrible way to deal with the depression. According to Paladino and Barrio-Minton (2008), Empirically supported factors contributing to suicidal ideation and behavior include, but are not limited to, low self-esteem, student stress, depression, loneliness, hopelessness, academic problems, relationship and family issues, financial concerns, and adjustment to college” (p. 643). This study indicates that student stress is correlated to suicide. People are unnecessarily taking their own lives, and this is a problem that needs to be understood and corrected. According to Hirsch, Connor, and Duberstein (2007), “suicide is the third leading cause of death during late adolescence and early adulthood” (p. 177).

According to the World Health Organization, mental disorders are estimated to account for nearly one half of the “total burden of disease for young adults in the United States” (as cited in Eisenberg, Golberstein, Gollust, & Hefner, 2007, p. 534). The National Mental Health Association quotes a study saying 30% of college freshmen report feeling overwhelmed a great deal of the time; 38% of college women do (as cited in Peterson, 2002). Ensuring the mental health of college students is important because, according to Eisenberg et al. (2007), “mental health in early adulthood has implications for many aspects of well-being, including alcohol and substance abuse, academic success, and future employment and relationships” (p. 534). This means that the mental health of a college aged student is extremely important to his or her future.

In a recent study, Eisenberg et al. (2007) conducted a web-based survey of undergraduate and graduate students at a large mid-western university. The analysis focused on the measures related to depression, anxiety, and suicidality. The study covered a range of other topics including mental health service use, awareness and attitudes about service use, social support, and health-related behaviors. A sample of 5,021 students (ages 18 and older), was randomly selected from the school registrar's database of all enrolled students. Levels of depression were measured with the Patient Health Questionnaire, or PHQ-9, a nine-item instrument based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders criteria for a major depressive episode. The participants were asked to indicate the frequency at which they experienced certain depressive symptoms. “They were then categorized as screening positive for major depression, other depressive disorder (this includes less severe depression, such as dysthymia, or depression not otherwise specified), or neither” (Eisenberg et al., 2007, p. 535).

It was concluded that “in a randomly selected sample of students at a single large public university, 13.8% of undergraduates and 11.3% of graduate students screened positive for major or other depression, 4.2% of undergraduates and 3.8% of graduate students screened positive for current panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, and 2.5% of undergraduates and 1.6% of graduate students reported suicidal thoughts in the past 4 weeks” (Eisenberg et. al, 2007, p. 538).

According to this study, 13.8% of undergraduates suffer from a form of depression, and

4.2% suffer from a form of panic disorder. These numbers are relatively high compared to the Depression in Relation to College Major study. The number of students reporting suicidal thought is astonishing. While 2.5% may not appear to be a large percentage, when you consider the number of participants, the amount of students with suicidal thoughts is remarkably high.

The purpose of this study was to find a correlation between participants’ major area of study in college and depressive symptoms. Depression is a leading disease in the United States today, and therefore it is extremely important that we understand, or at lease try to understand, causes and origins of depressive symptoms. If one college department is associated with more depression than another, then it should be known to all persons enrolled. Students need to be able to prepare themselves for the stressors that they become a part of. This study was simply a means of examining the correlation between major and depressive symptoms, in hopes that someday work will be done in an attempt to lessen the depression-related factors of college. College should be a somewhat enjoyable experience, and hopefully, with the help of this study and others research, it will become a more pleasant experience for future students. The researcher hypothesized that students majoring in Music would be experience more depressive symptoms than those majoring in Psychology. The hypothesis had to be changed to include only Music and Psychology due to a lack of participants in the three other colleges of the University of Central Missouri.


            The researcher approached this study with a two-part questionnaire, designed to get a glimpse into the minds of college students. She asked the participants’ age, gender, year in school, major, and of their backgrounds with depression. She they had the students rate their depressive symptoms from “feeling a little of the time” to feeling “most of the time”.


The participants in this study consisted of 40 college students (20 Psychology majors [1 male, 19 female] and 20 Music majors [10 male, 10 female]) attending the University of Central Missouri. The average age of the participants was 22.4 years, and the average number of credit hours enrolled in was 14.25. The researcher accessed participants from the college student union, library, hallways, and classrooms. All psychology majors were accessed from a single classroom. 0 participants refused to participate.


The materials for the present study consisted of one, two-part survey. In the first portion, each participant was asked his or her age, gender, college major, year in school, and questions regarding their history with depression and anxiety (Appendix 2). They were then given a twenty question survey regarding their levels of depressive symptoms. The participants were asked to rate themselves, on a scale of one to five, on a series of twenty depressive symptoms, as defined by the Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale (Zung, 1965, Appendix 1). The participants rated their emotions into four groups, from feeling the listed symptoms “a little of the time” to feeling the symptoms “most of the time”.


 The participants were given the informed consent form, and upon reading and signing, were presented with the survey portion of the study. The students filled out the ten question demographics survey, as well as the twenty question depression-rating survey. The survey took approximately ten minutes to complete. Once completed, the participants were debriefed (given a debriefing form with contact information). Participants were then asked if extra credit was offered to them for completing the research, and if they felt that they were to be awarded extra credit, they were given a coupon to turn into their professors for extra credit, and dismissed. The information was collected, and all surveys were placed into a manila envelope, under the close supervision by the researcher. Once all data was collected and entered into SPSS, a mean depression score was calculated for Psychology majors and Music majors. A two-way ANOVA was run, as well as a correlational analysis. The dependent variable was the depression score, and the independent variables were age, year in school, gender, and credit hours currently enrolled in.








            The scores of the Zung Depression Inventory, as well as participant age, gender, year in school, and current credit hours were examined. Average depression scores were calculated for each major (Psychology and Music). The researcher found that the average depression score was slightly higher for Music majors than for Psychology majors, but that more Psychology majors had sought treatment for depression (Table 1). The effects of college major F(1,38 ) = .885, p < .05, gender F(1,38) = .421, p <.05, and the interaction of major and gender F(1,36) = .828, p <.05 on depressive symptoms were analyzed using a two-way analysis of variance (ANOVA), and no significant effects were found. A correlated groups t-test was also run. A significant positive correlation was found between major and gender and age and year in school. A significant negative correlation was found between age and number of credit hours enrolled in.


            The purpose of this study was to examine the correlation between college major and depressive symptoms. The researcher hypothesized that the average depression score would be higher for Music majors than for Psychology majors. The data was not significant, and therefore did not support the hypothesis. While the average depression scores indicated that Music majors were slightly more depressed, it also indicated that Psychology majors were more likely to seek treatment for depressive symptoms. However, these were not significant findings, according to the two-way ANOVA that was run.

Three correlations were found. It was determined that gender played a significant role on major, age played a significant role on number of credit hours enrolled in, and age played a significant role on year in school.

The researcher found no similar studies, and therefore cannot make any comparisons at this time.


Compton, R. J., Carp, J., Fineman, S. L., Lin, M., Quandt, L. C., & Vargus, G. (2008). Error

detection and posterror in depressed undergraduates. Emotion, 8, 58-67.

Eisenberg, D., Gollust, S. E., Golberstein, E., & Hefner, J. L. (2007). Prevalence and

correlates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality among university students.  American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 77, PAGE #.  

Hirsch, J. K., Connor, K. R., & Duberstein, P. R. (2007). Optimism and suicide ideation among

young adult college students. Archives of Suicide Research, 11, 177-185.

Paladino, D., & Barrio-Minton, C. A. (2008). Comprehensive college student suicide assessment:

            Application of the basic id. Journal of American College Health, 56, 643-650.

Peterson, K. S. (2002, December 21). Depression among college students. USA Today, Retrieved

November 15, 2007, from http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/mental/                   2002-05-22-college-depression.htm

Uskun, E., Kisioglu, A. N., & Ozturk, M. (2008). Stress and its effects on depression and anxiety

in undergraduates. Primary Care & Community Psychology, 13, 73-82

Zung, W. W. (1965). A self-rating depression scale. Archives of General Psychology, 12, 63-70

Submitted 05/08/2009
Accepted 05/28/2009

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