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Addressing Graduate Student Mental Health Concerns

Many researchers have noted that the college mental health crisis amounts to an epidemic, with students reporting record rates of anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders. In 2019, a nationwide study found that rates of suicidal thinking, severe depression, and self injury among college students in the United States doubled over the last decade, according to Reuters. Data from two large annual surveys of undergraduates conducted between 2007 and 2018 found broad worsening of mental health issues including depression, anxiety, low-flourishing, and suicidal planning or attempts. But research also suggest that the crisis extends to other areas of academia, with graduate students at a higher risk of mental illness as well. 

One study titled “Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education” reported that graduate students were six-times as likely to report anxiety or depression compared with the general population, as per Nature Research. The 2,279 respondents were mostly PHD candidates (90%), representing 234 institutions - approximately 56% of respondents studied social sciences or humanities, while 38% study the biological and physical sciences, according to Inside Higher Ed.

The study concluded that work-life balance and quality of mentorship were the key factors played major roles in student happiness and health. One-third of students with anxiety and depression reported dissatisfaction with their advisors, adding that faculty did not offer adequate support or “positively impact emotional wellbeing.” More than half of those reporting who experienced anxiety or depression did not think their advisors were assets to their careers and reported feeling under-valued. 

Related Blog: What Role Does Campus Safety Play in Mental Health on College  Campuses?

Administrators should take immediate action to address the graduate mental health crisis, expanding access to mental health care and making an effort to alleviate the stressors causing increased rates of mental illness. The workaholic-culture of an advanced degree program can be detrimental to student mental health, as can stigma around feeling overwhelmed or seeking help. Plans to fix broken relationships with advisors should also be part of a graduate student mental health plan, as many students report having little recourse or remedy in these situations. 

Why Is There A Graduate Mental Health Crisis? 

In October of 2019, MIT and Harvard conducted a graduate student survey, assessing the experiences of students currently pursuing a Master's degree or PhD, according to The Tech. 9 out of 10 students reported feeling overwhelmed, 2 out of 3 reported feeling isolated, and 1 in 3 reported feeling almost too depressed to function, emphasizing the toll graduate programs may be taking on students. There are several potential systemic causes of these mental health issues on campus, including a competitive environment, lack of sufficient healthcare, outside stress around future job success, and dysfunctional relationships with advisors. 

Graduate students might be prone to destructive behaviors - overworking, becoming isolated from peers, using substances to cope, and ultimately becoming unable to work due to burnout. One former graduate student reported working 12-hour days, and resorting to binge drinking on weekend to self-medicate, resulting in long term repercussions to her physical and mental health, according to Chronicle of Higher Ed. A negative work environment can also contribute to stigma - students feel that they can’t open up to peers or seek help due to a pervading idea that this is how graduate school “just is.” If a college doesn’t do enough to encourage self-care, offer peer-support programs, or make outside mental healthcare accessible, negative mental health outcomes are inevitable. 

Professional concerns are also a major stressor. A shrinking job market might be contributing to graduate student stress. Many new PhDs are struggling to find secure academic jobs, and bleak outlooks on the academic job market often contain phrases like “extinction event,” according to the New York Times. Advisors can also be a major factor in the graduate mental health crisis. Faculty members don’t typically receive sensitivity training or guidance how to spot mental health issues in students to offer support, and broken relationships can have a negative impact on students already struggling to cope. 

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How Can Universities Better Support Graduate Students? 

Graduate students play a critical role in higher education - in addition to pursuing an advanced degree, these individuals teach and mentor undergraduates, conduct important research, publish in academic journals, and write grant applications on behalf of their programs. Data from recent studies and a vested interest in graduate student success should inspire school administrators and policy makers to take proactive steps to address the graduate mental health crisis. By addressing the systemic causes and improving communications between administrators, faculty, and students, institutions can play a role in cultivating a healthy and successful learning environment. 

One fundamental aspect of improving graduate-student mental health is to fix broken advisor-student or mentor-mentee relationships. Some graduate students pushed administration to create structural improvements around advisor-advisee partnerships, including required training for all faculty on mentorship; training on mental health, cultural competency and sensitivity; and accountability protocol for abusive faculty members; and clear protections for students who come forward about an advisor exhibiting these negative behaviors, as per the Tech. Given how recent studies have indicated that lack of support or dysfunctional relationships with advisors are the strongest predictor of a negative mental health outcome in a graduate student, this is one area that shouldn’t be ignored by program administrators or campus safety teams. 

Related Blog: The Growing Trends in College Mental Health Statistics

It’s also critical that faculty members prioritize self-care and peer support, allowing students to be open about their struggles amid intense academic research. Nobody should promote self-destructive habits - such as staying up-all night, or spending long days in labs without breaks for food or rest - and all should avoid stigmatizing mental illness. By promoting physical and mental wellness, as well as encouraging students to seek out counseling or other help, fewer graduate students are likely to assume mental health difficulties are just part of life on campus. 

Leveraging technology can help graduate schools better understand and address the concerns of students, A campus communication app can help administrators better identify student struggles - in addition to letting the user communicate directly with campus safety, it also can serve as a tipline. The anonymous two-way tip texting tool can allow graduate students to report concerns about advisors or faculty members exhibiting abusive behavior, without fear of retaliation. It can also empower students to report any concern about a peer who might be struggling with mental health, allowing campus safety to reach out and offer potential support. A resource center and directory can also contain information about on-campus counseling services, insurance benefit plans, or peer-support sessions, making critical information accessible to all students. 

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Mary Kate McGrath
Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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