Grad School Mental Health Crisis: How Students can Impact Mental Health through School Policy

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Marie Chesaniuk; Graduate Student in Clinical Psychology, University of Illinois at Chicago
 

Graduate students in the health sciences experience high rates of psychological distress. A recent survey of over two-thousand graduate students found that graduate students are 6 times more likely to experience anxiety and depression compared to the general population. Last year, researchers found that PhD students are at a significantly higher risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder, particularly depression, relative to highly educated general population, highly-educated employees, and higher education student comparison groups. Half of all PhD students experience psychological distress and a third are at risk of a common psychiatric disorder. These effects are more severe for students experiencing racial discrimination and for students who are trans or gender non-conforming.
 

Why are Graduate Students more Prone to Metal Health Disorders?

Graduate Students are less likely to have a good work-life balance. Graduate students typically need to play many roles and often take work home. With high job demands and less time to relax and spend time with family, graduate students are more prone to emotional exhaustion and depressive symptoms. Only a quarter of graduate students surveyed agreed that, “I have a good work-life balance.”

Relationships with graduate advisors are another element that can lead to anxiety and depression. Graduate students with a strong, supportive and positive mentoring relationships result in less anxiety and depression. Advisors with an inspirational leadership style tend to have students with better mental health whereas advisors with a laissez-faire leadership style have students with increased risk of psychological distress.
 

How to Promote Mental Health for Grad students?

  1. Get involved in Student Government

The Graduate School student government can make a big impact on mental health care resources. In 2016, students at the University of Minnesota (UMN) discovered that only one in five UMN campuses could provide a counseling center appointment within the next 2 weeks. The Minnesota Student Association, the Council of Graduate Students, and the student representatives to the Board of Regents issued statements to the administration advocating for reduced wait times and increased the diversity of UMN’s counseling staff. UMN responded by committing to hiring the equivalent of 4.5 more counselors and created a task force to train faculty and staff in reducing, recognizing, and responding to student stress.

Forming collaborations with student government and specific departments may also help create change. Collaborations between student Council on Graduate Studies representatives and department clinic directors can lead to developing a guide to mental health care resources for Graduate Students.

Graduate student unions have also been known to make mental healthcare access and coverage part of collective bargaining.
 

  1. Join a Disability and Diversity Committee

Many departments have diversity committees or similar organizations, which can make an effort to more visibly include mental health disabilities under the diversity aegis. Universities have offices for disability resources which can also be a source of support for effecting new mental health policies on campus. Increasing faculty diversity should include disability. Department handbooks can provide clear resources.
 

  1. Develop Research and Dissertations on Grad School Mental Health

It’s great to see more senior researchers addressing graduate student mental health, but this discussion is not complete without our own contributions. There have been 321 dissertations on graduate students and mental health by graduate students (see figure), and coverage of this issue has been increasing. My own dissertation explores the role of graduate student TAs as gatekeepers to university mental health resources. Despite growth in coverage, there are no systematic reviews specific to graduate students and surprisingly few studies on solely graduate student populations. Most work on this topic has lumped graduate students into general ‘university’ student populations that also include undergraduates, who generally outnumber graduate students. Clearly more research on graduate students as a unique population is needed.


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