There is general agreement that too many graduate students experience poor mental health and that more needs to be done to address this problem. A recent well-controlled study found graduate students were at 2.4x greater risk of common mental health disorders. That number won’t surprise anyone in academia—it doesn’t take much time in academia to realize that poor mental health is unfortunately common.
There is still much work to be done to better understand the problem and the factors that contribute to it. But there is also a need to make changes that might help improve graduate student mental health. To list some of the specific things I’ve been thinking about:
- developing a system for checking in on students who are at stages known to be stressful (e.g., qualifying exams, defending);
- having a department point person who helps connect graduate students with mental health resources; and
- how to ensure better access to mental health care and increased normalization of seeking mental health care.
There are also issues related more broadly to the culture in which graduate students carry out their research, including a need to fight against a culture of overwork and to reduce sexual harassment. (1 in 5 targets of sexual harassment will be diagnosed with a depressive disorder, and there is a positive correlation between the amount of sexual harassment a woman experiences and the degree to which she reports depression, stress, and anxiety.)
As I think about things that could be done to better promote and support graduate student, my hope is that there are already departments, programs, universities, institutes, societies, etc. that are already doing good things in this area that others could emulate. It could be something big—one person who responded when I asked about this on twitter talked about a rapid response coordinated care team that works with grad students in crisis and grad chairs—or it could be small:
(Bonus: the dogs are listed as staff on the Emory CAPS website!)
Please let us know in the comments about good things people, departments, institutions, etc. are doing related to graduate student mental health!
Every summer our Graduate School runs a development day for supervisors and postgrads. This year the theme was student resilience and mental health; more details here: https://researchsupporthub.northampton.ac.uk/2018/05/23/graduate-school-update-day-tuesday-12-june/
In my department (Ecology) here in São Paulo/Brazil, I helped found (3 years ago, while I was still a PhD candidate) a group of grad students that we call “Existential coffee”, where grad students gather periodically to discuss themes related to mental health in academia. The themes range from Impostor Syndrome to “Is there real life after grad school”. Sometimes the committee even get to bring psychologists, or former grad students to share experiences.
Unfortunately, the website is only available in portuguese, but I am very proud of having planting the seed for this wonderful group. Also, the idea is spreading throughout our institute, with similar initiatives sprouting in other departments as well.
This relates more to the culture surrounding research: At Université Laval, the biology department now have a ‘contract’ or rather a ‘research agreement’ between grad students and their advisor. This contract will include expectations from the advisor (e. g. attendance at the office, to publish one article…), the number of vacations weeks and founding. If I remember well, the ‘contract’ is reviewed by the head of the program.
I think this is a great way to avoid misunderstanding between students & advisors and potentially avoid stressfull situation. I know lots of people do it in their lab at other University, but it think the mandatory part + the external reviewer part make it safer for students.
We discussed the idea of having expectations of students producing at least one paper from their work but decided against it because it can put too much pressure on students whose main focus should be getting the research completed and written up as a thesis.
Expectations are defined by the advisor and the studen (supposedly together), so it doesn’t mean all contracts will have it. Personnally, I agree with you.
The idea of having a “research agreement” is ideal for the whole process of graduation. On one hand, students and advisors have a clear picture of what is expected from each other and from the university. On the other hand, it does not prevent students to experience stress and anxiety (for example). These agreements often set some goals such as publishing three papers to be elegible to defend their PhD thesis. If they do not have that number, then they cannot dedend! And the focus goes from getting the research done to the webpage of the journal to where they have submitted their first manuscript (or second). The consequence is to extend the period from four to five or even six years of PhD (I have seen this too often in my university). I really like the idea to have three papers at the end of the PhD, especially when the competition for a post-doc position (almost a prerequisite to get a professorship or similar) in ecology is getting brutal out there! At the same time, I think something must change in the graduation process to have everything Academia expect from us.
I am PhD student at University of Tartu (Estonia). There, all students have access to what they call “counselling services”. The services include advice on organisation of studies, career, and psychological counselling. The counselling service is confidential and free for all students of the university.
My PhD uni’s student counselling service briefly trialled group therapy specifically aimed at research students (PhD students and Masters students doing research-only degrees), which was AMAZING. It was great to have a system targeted at someone other than “undergrads stressed out about exams”, to have a service that went all year-round, and to meet and connect with other grad students dealing with similar issues to me.
Sadly after the trial this program got cut for budget reasons, but, hey, it was a great start.
I’ve also really liked some of the initiatives surrounding mental health that have come out of disabled student/staff groups at some of the universities I’ve worked at. It’s great to talk about stress and resilience and impostor syndrome, but that doesn’t actually address the realities of serious long-term mental illnesses. Having mentoring/advice schemes in place that can address questions like “what do I do if I need to take time out of my degree for mental health reasons?” or “how in the world do I access mental health care in this country?” can make a huge difference.
It wasn’t specific to graduate students, but Cornell had walk-in counselors available at a variety of locations on campus. It can be much less intimidating than having to call the counseling center and then having to wait for an appointment.
Speaking from the post-doc perspective (unfortunately mental health issues don’t disappear once you get a diploma!), one of the healths benefits of the University of California postdoc union is covered visits to therapists with $0 co-pay, with low monthly premiums. You’re not restricted to the people in the on-campus counseling center, so you have the opportunity to find someone who fits your style and specializes in your needs.
I can’t think of a grad program (hopefully there are some out there) that provides the same level of mental health coverage, but that would probably be a huge step in the right direction. On-campus counseling is great, but sometimes there are limits on the # of visits, and you might not find a good fit with a therapist. Having a $0 co-pay is key because weekly visits can quickly become unaffordable on a grad student budget.
I found the EARs program at Cornell very useful (http://orgsync.rso.cornell.edu/org/ears). It is a peer-to-peer counseling service (with both grad and undergrad counselors that undergo rigorous training). The PhD student counselor I saw back when I was a student was extremely useful because not only was she trained in counseling, she knew the PhD experience well, and also knew what resources were worth my time, and which ones were not. On the other hand, I found the general psychologists at the campus medical center, not very useful, because they didn’t really understand PhD specific problems.
It is important to recognize that at most universities, mental health services are targeted towards undergraduate students. From talking with a bunch of PhD students at my current university and in combination with my own experiences back in graduate school, the psychologists on both campuses didn’t seem to really understand the PhD experience, and their psychological explanations in general were more geared to a lay audience, not a scientifically literate audience that would interrogate their explanations and ask for evidence.
A lot of my PhD friends did much better with psychiatrists (rather than psychologists) off campus (which they got a referral for and was subsidized). These psychiatrists provided them with peer reviewed literature and data that supported their advice. As scientists we are the types of people who like to know the “why”. I think its important to have specialists on campus (or a referral network) that are trained to work with PhD students. The difficulty with the university that had this referral program is that you had to jump through a lot of hoops with the general psychologists on campus to get the referral.
So based on my small sample size of around 10 students, and my own personal experience, using these services across 2 universities, it seems like peer-to-peer and evidence-based counseling worked best compared to general psychological services that tend to be more common at University campuses.
A fellow PhD student and I recently ran a pilot mental health awareness session for PhD students and supervisors in our department. This was judged the correct level for both engagement and mutual support in discussions with our Head of Department and Head of Graduate Studies.
There is a growing awareness in UK universities that supporting the mental health of graduate students is an important issue following the publication of this report by Vitae in May: http://re.ukri.org/documents/2018/mental-health-report/. We gained funding from our Researcher Development Team at the university to run the session as a pilot for future training during a mental health wellbeing promotion at the university.
We developed the session around the idea of supporting one’s students or peers and included sections on how to recognise mental health problems, what to do if you think someone is struggling with their mental health (both in terms of your immediate response and how to signpost sources of support) and what support is available both within the department, university and beyond. We engaged a trainer from a local mental health charity to deliver the session, with extra material on the help available within the university and department provided by us.
One lesson learnt is that the PGR/supervisor relationship in a department can be quite particular, and it would have been beneficial to have talked through this with the trainer beforehand so that they really understood the specifics. In addition, the balance of content delivered did not end up quite as we had envisaged, and so it would have been helpful to have discussed and defined that better with the trainer. Our experience suggests that developing this sort of session is obviously quite challenging and that you might expect to have to go through one or two iterations to get to the correct format for a particular situation.
We found the session particularly valuable for opening up a dialogue between PhD students and supervisors within our department. Everyone was in agreement that the current provisions to promote and support the mental wellbeing of graduate students were not succeeding as they might. One useful observation was that there is currently no compulsory training for those supervising graduate students. Whilst information is circulated around supervisors, it is not compulsory reading and is not actively kept up to date. Furthermore, many of the supervisors present did not feel fully equipped to best support students facing mental health difficulties. A proposal was made that a short online training course be created that provided information on help sources currently available, whom the point of contact for concerns is in the department etc. This would be completed once per year in a similar vein to existing online training (e.g. Fire Awareness Training).
We hope that this pilot session will inform future training in our department and university. In particular we hope that similar training will be delivered to new supervisors and PhD students in our department so that there is a continued awareness of and support for mental health within the department.
Just a note to say that it is disturbingly common for US universities to provide their graduate students with extremely poor health insurance (some universities, of course, provide great health insurance). This not only increases anxiety/depression for students generally (especially those with chronic health problems), but also makes it difficult for students to afford mental health treatment. Ensuring that your students have good, affordable health insurance is a fundamental starting point to promoting better mental health.
A bit late to the party but thought I’d contribute.
Most Universities in Germany (as far as I know) will have free mental health classes (on specific issues) and/or therapists available for one on one talks. Additionally of course we have health insurance so anytime you need a therapist you can just go and never have to pay for it.
However, as there is still much more of a stigma on seeing a therapist as there is in the US, I found that our “buddy system” was very helpful not just regarding mental health.
Our group of PhD students tried to establish a “buddy system” in which one PhD student is “assigned” to each bachelor or master student during their thesis. That way the student has someone to talk to other than the Prof. for minor problems or just plain things you are too embarrassed to ask. Unfortunately the system didn’t get much support from the senior scientists and fell apart after our core group left, but I do think it helps to have someone you can ask questions about science and/or life that isn’t your supervisor.
I am eternally grateful to our two post-docs who helped me through a lot of things that I never would have discussed with my supervisor. Being a post-doc myself now I try to do the same. I don’t know if this is common practice elsewhere but if it isn’t it should be.
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