Graduate Students and Mental Health

As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, I wanted to address the plight of graduate students and young academics. Much of this post pulls from several reports and a few articles that also discuss the reports. There aren’t a lot of studies that focus specifically on mental health and graduate students, but the few that have been conducted reveal an alarming trend.

The most recent, a 2013 study conducted by Tammy Wyatt and Sara Oswalt, revealed that despite a higher percentage of mental health diagnoses in undergraduates, struggles with mental health issues were significant in graduate students. In “Paying Graduate School’s Mental Toll,” Carrie Arnold writes:

Nearly 40% of graduate students reported feeling hopeless during the previous year, 78.5% said they had felt overwhelmed, 27.2% said they had felt depressed, and 54.5% said they had felt stress over the past year ranging from “more than average” to “tremendous.”

A 2006 report from UC paints a similar picture. About 60% of graduate students said that they felt overwhelmed, exhausted, hopeless, sad, or depressed nearly all the time. One in 10 said they had contemplated suicide in the previous year.

The 2006 report Arnold mentions was a Final Report written by the Student Mental Health Committee for the University of California. Here’s an excerpt concerning the situation graduate students face:

To further highlight the challenges students face, data from a recent UC Berkeley study of 3,100 graduate students (Berkeley Graduate Student Mental Health Survey Report—see Appendix E) reveals that almost fifty percent of respondents had experienced an emotional or stress-related problem that significantly affected their well-being and/or academic performance. Almost ten percent of respondents further reported they had considered suicide in the last twelve months. This same study indicated that graduate students confront more pervasive mental health problems than undergraduates. UC has a significant population of graduate and professional students who by the nature of their independent study and research are at more risk of becoming isolated from the support structures of the broader campus. [*]

. . .

In our sample, 67 percent of graduate student respondents felt hopeless at least once in the last twelve months, 54 percent reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function, and 9.9 percent reported that they had considered suicide.

These numbers are alarming. Especially when paired with other findings by the Berkeley study, which indicates that 24% of graduate students surveyed were unaware of the university’s counseling services. Over half of the respondents had considered using counseling services, while only 27% actually did. More troubling, however, is that, as Arnold reports, some university counseling centers do not offer services to graduate students. All of this is accompanied by a marked upswing in the use of psychological and psychiatric services by undergraduate and graduate students alike. The 2006 report emphasizes the need to address the increased load at the UC system:

[O]ver the preceding five years, the sheer number of students seeking assistance through CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services] has increased by over fifty percent, and the psychological complexity and severity of cases has dramatically risen. Many more students come to campus on behavioral medication and many more exhibit signs of clinical depression than in previous eras. These trends appear to be UC-wide (if not national trends).

While the 2006 report focused only on the UC system, absent countervailing reasons these findings would seem to extrapolate nationally. But why are graduate students having such a tough time?

In my last post, Tempest in a Teapot, I quoted Nadine Muller’s post about anxiety in academia, “An Anxious Mind.” Muller offers an excellent breakdown of some of the personal and institutional forces that may be driving this trend, such as the higher stakes of graduate work in an incredibly competitive job market, unrealistic expectations regarding workload and achievement (which are held by advisers and students alike), and economic pressures, such as debt or the need to pay one’s way through an advanced degree. Over at InsideHigherEd, Nash Turley wrote a great article for last year’s Mental Illness Awareness Week entitled, “Mental Health Issues Among Graduate Students.” Turley offers a few suggestions on where to go from here, on the institutional side. They include departments openly acknowledging the existence and prevalence of mental health issues, and any available services should be prominently highlighted. Advisers should also be trained to spot some of the warning signs of mental health issues in their students, which goes hand-in-hand with knowing about and encouraging students to use the relevant university services. Turley also suggests that workshops on mindfulness and stress-relief should be offered (if not mandated). I agree with all of Turley’s suggestions, but I think the individual side needs to be emphasized as well.

As with physical health, a large part of the onus for maintaining one’s mental health falls on the individual. Of course, the tricky part can be that certain mental health issues may make it difficult for an individual to accurately gauge the severity of his or her own struggles with mental health. Another issue, which I touched on in an earlier post, is the social and perceived stigma that is associated with mental illness. Many graduate students are afraid to discuss their mental health concerns for fear of being stigmatized, losing opportunities, or the deeper concern of what it may mean for their personal, and public, identity. But at the end of the day, I think one of the best changes that can be fostered in academia to combat the issue of mental illness is education. Learning about the signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as the importance of addressing them professionally and appropriately, will make it easier for individuals to spot the rising tide before the storm hits. This, paired with an institutional emphasis among academic faculty on the importance of maintaining mental health could go a long way. Getting the problem out in the open is part and parcel of understanding, and combating it.

[*Note: I’m not sure if I’m missing something in the 2006 report, but the 60% rate Arnold cites in the first quote appears to refer to undergraduates and not graduates (see Appendix E of the report, pg. 53 of the PDF). I’m not sure where the source of the discrepancy lies.]

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