Recently, a piece I wrote with my colleagues Carly Thanhouser and Daniel Eisenberg appeared at The Conversation. The piece focuses on things that can be done to promote graduate student mental health. Our aim was to move beyond the typical self-help things (get enough sleep, exercise, etc.) – those are important, but exercise can only go so far if there are systemic issues contributing to poor mental health.
I encourage you to read the full piece, but I also wanted to follow up on a few things here (tw: discussion of suicide below).
- We need to focus on mentoring, too!
Perhaps most notably, during the process of editing the piece from our original submission to what got published, a section focused on what graduate mentors can do to promote mental health got cut. On the one hand, I wish it was in there because a mentor’s advising style can significantly influence graduate student mental health, and there are things mentors can do to promote student mental health. On the other hand, it’s such an important topic that it probably deserves its own piece. I’m planning on writing that (and am open to suggestions about where to submit/publish it!)
- It’s good to think about what individual students can do, but we need to also address systemic barriers to mental health
Before it was published, I had interesting discussions about who the target reader was. As I said above, there’s a lot of focus on what graduate students can do, but I don’t think it should be the responsibility of graduate students to, say, address sexual and gender-based harassment. But a piece like this can also help graduate students to push for change.
While I was working on the piece and thinking about how to frame it, I read an article on “Lean In” messages and the illusion of control. It’s written by social scientists about new work they did asking about the effects of focusing on changing systems and structures that are problematic vs. focusing on tactics individuals can use to get ahead despite those problematic systems. Their work focused on women’s underrepresentation in leadership, and they:
suspected that by arguing that women can solve the problem themselves, advocates of the “DIY” approach may imply that women should be the ones to solve it — that it is their responsibility to do so. We also hypothesized that this message could risk leading people to another, potentially dangerous conclusion: that women have caused their own under-representation.
They gave people messages that emphasized either societal and structural barriers to women in leadership (e.g., discrimination) or messages that emphasized things women could do to get ahead (e.g., speak more confidently, take more risks). Their hypotheses were supported:
People who read or listened to the DIY messages were more likely to believe women have the power to solve the problem. That, on its own, may very well be good news. However, they were also more likely to believe that women are responsible for the problem — both for causing it, and for fixing it.
What’s more, these effects were even associated with people’s policy preferences.
Reading that as I worked on this piece reinforced my feeling that the piece should not be aimed solely at graduate students. If we focus only on what graduate students can do to improve their mental health, it ignores very important structural barriers to mental health.
(A related anecdote: I’ve recently discussed this general topic with two physician friends in separate conversations. Both noted frustrations with initiatives along the lines of encouraging daily meditation when the real problems are systemic ones, such as being so over-scheduled that they need to stay up until 1AM to get their notes done.)
- Important context for the statistic related to suicidal thoughts
Our piece says “When asked about their mental health in the past year, 7 percent of graduate and professional students reported seriously considering suicide compared to 4 percent of adults in the general population.” The next sentence – which provided important context – unfortunately got cut during edits. That context is that, while the rate is 4% in the general population, there is strong variation with age, with the peak in 18-25 year olds: 8.8% of 18-25 year olds in the general population reported seriously considering suicide in the past year.
Near the beginning of our article, we wrote:
we believe critical changes need to be made at universities to better support students … Some of these changes can be made by individual graduate students and faculty, while others require larger institutional changes by graduate programs, departments and the universities as a whole.
Please think about what changes you can make within your department and university to better support student mental health!