Mental Health in Graduate School

When I started my doctoral program, I didn’t realize that maintaining my mental health was going to be a primary focus as I juggled work, courses, presentations, publications, and connections with friends and family.  Yet, as I explained in a previous post, I have learned how to navigate and manage my relationship with anxiety while progressing in my program. To my surprise, the issue of mental health and graduate school was not unique to me. Through one-on-one conversations with some of my peers, I noticed there was a commonality in our challenges with mental health and learning to take care of ourselves in an environment that does not allows nurture holistic well-being.

My conversations with friends compelled me to further explore the topic of mental health and doctoral students. One of my most recent research discoveries was a study published in the spring of 2018 that examined the mental health of graduate students, specifically their experiences with anxiety and depression. Researchers Evans, Bira, Gestelum, Weiss and Vanderford (2018) found that, in comparison to the general population, graduate students are six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety, and women, transgender, and gender non-conforming students experience more anxiety and depression than their male counterparts. Of those graduate students who experience moderate and severe levels of anxiety and depression, more than half disagreed with the statement “I have a good work-life balance”.

Results from this study came as no surprise to me. As someone who speaks with peers and deals with my own mental health, I found these findings to be similar to issues I discuss with colleagues. Yes, mental health is a problem for graduate students. However, it is an accepted norm that students are likely to experience mental health challenges and deal with them silently. Also, there seems to be an implied understanding that to discuss one’s mental health shows weakness and could demonstrate a student is not fit to be a scholar.

To address mental health, the Evans and colleagues (2018) offer multiple recommendations including a cultural shift in academia and providing students with resources for maintaining a healthy work-life balance. I have mixed feelings about these recommendations. While I believe a cultural change in academia would be of tremendous service to not only students but all those of the community, I am also skeptical that this shift will happen. There are multiple aspects of academic culture and people within the higher education community that do not seem to support this type of cultural change. I applaud efforts of institutions who are making students’ mental health a priority through support groups and programs. Yet, I’m realistic in questioning if these types of groups and programs are sustainable and will become the norm in academia. Perhaps in a few years, I will retract my skeptical statement because there will be a genuine shift in the field.

If I don’t believe a cultural change is likely to happen in higher education then what do I think should be done? Institutions and other systems impact the livelihood and professional progression of graduate students, and their impact cannot be ignored. At times, it seems the system is set up to weed people out and those who succeed are allowed to be the next generation of scholars. For me, I have had to make a committed decision. I have decided no one cares about my mental health as much as I do so I have to create boundaries and take care of myself. No one knows what I need for my mental and emotional well-being as much as me nor do I expect anyone to. While my perspective seems to be shifting the onus from the institutions onto the individual, I see my perspective as me asserting control over my well-being. I find it powerful. Along with taking actions to maintain my mental health, it’s essential for me to stay connected to other colleagues, peers, and social networks that have created space to discuss mental health and generate strategies for addressing related issues. Though silence may be a norm when dealing with mental health, I find dialogue and camaraderie provide new insight and help me feel supported in my journey. I enjoy growing and evolving with a community of like-minded people and have had multiple positive experiences from our connection.

I am hopeful that I will look back at this post and note my lack of optimism — that indeed higher education shifted to prioritize graduate students’ mental health as well as their academic progress. In the meantime, while academia is figuring out what to do about this mental health issue, I am making my mental health a priority and building community with colleagues who have similar values.

Unable to access the Evans and colleagues study? Check out the Inside Higher Ed article that summarizes findings from their data.

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