More on what colleges must do to promote mental health for graduate students

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).

  1. 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!)

  1. 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.)

  1. 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.

Concluding thought

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!

5 thoughts on “More on what colleges must do to promote mental health for graduate students

  1. Just out of curiosity, why was the editorial process apparently so restrictive? Since “The Conversation” appears to be online only, a few more sentences won’t affect printing costs. Seems the loss of context for the suicide stat is pretty important. Are grad students nearly twice as likely to think about suicide than peers who are in their main age group? Or about the same? The first comparison suggests that, on top of the diligence we should have in protecting our students’ health, there may be an additional structural issue with graduate studies that puts students more at risk.

  2. Thanks so much for this post Meg! I have a couple of thoughts to add from the perspective of a postdoc, on how to improve mental health for our community. Since many grad students will go on to be postdocs, I hope this’ll be seen as an addendum!
    1. Be aware that postdocs will not ha

    • Oops, accidentally posted too soon! I’m directing these comments to some combination of PIs/administrators. Because postdocs likely do not have on-campus options for counselling, and because health insurance takes time to set up, we’re left in the lurch mental-health-wise in a crucial period of transition. In this context, the following might be helpful to think about.
      1. Have some informed opinions on which of a postdoc’s insurance options will be better for mental health care. This will be location specific. For example, I’ve found one of the University of California postdoc insurance options great in Santa Barbara and much less great in Berkeley. I’d have loved it if someone would have mentioned that to me when I moved to either location.
      2. Ask for or work towards the maintenance of a list of therapists that definitely take the insurance that postdocs have. It is time-consuming and draining to seek out this information, because insurance providers do a terrible job of keeping these lists up-to-date
      3. Some universities (e.g. UCSB) have on-campus short-term/interim counseling through HR that can be used by staff, including postdocs, in that crucial period of transition that is incredibly stressful but also during which we most likely don’t yet have insurance. Such a service could also be used to connect postdocs with therapists who are known to take their insurance/have openings etc. Know if this service is available at your institution, and communicate that to your new postdocs. Advocate for the creation of this service in your university.

      • At Clemson we have an Employee Assistance Program that includes counseling/mental issue sessions for free for all employees, including post docs. WVU had that too when I was there. It does not matter which insurance option you have elected, from what I can tell. Doesn’t the UC system have something similar? Sometimes these services are available, but not through the normal insurance channel.

        I guess my point is that, for everyone, it’s worth knowing about that too. I found out about it because the HR department highlighted it in their periodic email blast, so I guess that also suggests that you don’t just hit delete when the spammy HR/university-wide emails come through.

      • From what I can tell, it varies by campus-UCSB and UC Davis have it, UC Berkeley does not. And seconded on the quick-skim-before-deleting approach!

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