How do we improve the status of mental health in graduate school?

A recent article in The Atlantic covering the mental health disorders people suffer with in graduate school recently popped up on my suggested articles on Google, and on my Facebook timeline (I will give up Facebook, eventually). In the Facebook comments, and in the post sharing this article, people overwhelmingly agreed that this was nothing new. The overwhelming response was, “well, duh!”. The Atlantic, also published letters to the writer, Alia Wong, discussing the issues they have seen during their education regardless of the field of study.

This brings about a bigger problem seen in academia. I see at least one article every few months with new data concerning the mental health of students in graduate school published in Nature or Science, and indeed the data is concerning. It is a major issue that we do not really talk about. The Atlantic article references a Harvard-affiliated study that followed Ph.D. candidates at eight universities in the economics field where 18% of graduate students reported they experienced symptoms of moderate or severe depression and anxiety.

Source: Evans, et al, 2018. Nature Biotechnology.

Earlier this year, a Nature Biotechnology study called the mental health status of students in graduate schools a “crisis”, and called for possible interventions to help students suffering from these mental health issues. The data in this study surveyed 2279 individuals of which 90% of individuals were enrolled in Ph.D. and 10% enrolled in Master’s programs (these individuals represented 26 countries, and 234 institutions) based on clinically standardized surveys (GAD-07 for anxiety, and PHQ-9 for depression). The not-so shocking results of the study showed that 41% of individuals surveyed reported moderate to severe anxiety whereas 39% reported moderate to severe depression. To put this in perspective, and the authors pointed this out well, 6% of the general population reports moderate to severe depression. Transgender individuals (including gender non-conforming), and women, also showed higher rates of depression and anxiety, which mirrors rates of that seen amongst non-research cohorts. Work-life balance, and the mentor/mentee relationship also impacts rates of depression and anxiety among graduate students (supplementary information provided by the group).

Now, I have thought about this a lot since I read that original The Atlantic article, which was a few weeks ago at this point (this topic is particularly heavy for me, and it has taken me time to comb through the plethora of articles on this subject). Based on what I read, I noted that while there is a substantial amount of science on the numbers of students who suffer from mental illness, and there are other studies that are yet to be done that could give us more insight into particular institutions, and fields.  With the exception of the Nature Biotechnology article, not many of these articles point to a solution, which I admit is tricky to come up with an overarching solution for each person in every field.  So, what can we do as individuals to improve the situation of mental health in graduate school? 

Raise awareness. We recently had a graduate school mental health session campus provided by our Graduate Student Association in collaboration with Initiatives for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) program. This experience, which I’ll discuss in a future blog post, brought awareness to students of what mental illnesses are, and what they aren’t. I think the most important part was the point of raising awareness to what depression and anxiety are, and how they can manifest in graduate school.

Fight the stigma and share your story. The articles I read on the status of mental health in graduate school not only include the staggering statistics of mental health-related conditions affecting graduate students, but touching personal stories from students sharing their own personal struggles. If your own institution does not offer resources for mental health support (or if they are limited), it may be helpful to read about someone else’s experiences to help you feel less alone. This avenue of sharing also helps fight the stigma that mental health disorders may make you seem weak, or lesser than others. They absolutely do not. Having a mental health disorder absolutely does not make you less of a person, scientist, friend, significant other, or any sort of identifier you can think of. By sharing our experiences, we can encourage each other to speak more openly about the issues we face as individuals.

Demand resources for graduate students and postdocs. Many institutions have taken note of the current situation concerning mental health of trainees, and have employed resources for graduate students to take advantage of if they are experiencing mental health issues. Our institution provides mental health clinicians to talk to, access to licensed counselors, and started a Wellness Program specifically for graduate students. Sharing the resources with others who may not know how to utilize them, is also beneficial, especially if someone is scared or concerned about confidentiality or concerned about the services offered at each institution.

Check on friends and create a supportive network. We all have the best intentions when wanting to keep up with all of our friends, but life and grad school can get in the way of that. Being kind to our friends, neighbors, lab mates, and peers could make a magnitude of difference when it comes to mental health. Making networks of people that lift each other up, help one another out when things get tough, and are just there for each other has drastically improved my mental health. Further than this, graduate schools can implement safe spaces for students to share their stories, personal struggles, and interact with potential mentors who can provide advice, or their own experiences.

If you have any comments on how we can improve the situation of mental health in graduate school, please let us know. We would love for this to be an open forum for discussion. What would you like to see in your institution?

About the author: Crystal Mendoza is a graduate student in the Virology and Gene Therapy program doing her thesis on the development of therapeutics for tickborne viral diseases. She enjoys traveling, reading, and spending time with her corgi, Chente.

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