The Mental Health Crisis Among Graduate Students

This article was written in collaboration with the LifePeriodt blog.
As students enter graduate school, they are faced with a myriad of deadlines, financial challenges, and new relationships to foster. Most mental health efforts are placed upon undergraduate students, but recent studies suggest that most resources should instead be directed towards graduate students.
(TL;DR at bottom 😊)
Approximate Read Time: 3-4 minutes!
Introduction:

With financial strains, abundance of academic work, possible experiences with imposter syndrome, and the seeking of employment/grants, graduate students are placed under immense amounts of stress and pressure. Their academic obligations often create schedules where graduate students have little time for hobbies, socializing, and self-care practices.

Unfortunately, plenty of schools across the US have turned a blind eye to the mental health of their graduate students by failing to provide safe spaces and resources for students to get help.

Research & Statistics:

In the past two years, research efforts regarding the mental health of graduate students have increased.

A 2018 study led by Harvard University surveyed several thousand graduate students across the US to study rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide risk. Additionally, the researchers aimed to determine environmental factors that may contribute to stress levels.

The researchers found that graduate students are six times more likely than the general population (of a similar age range) to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. Furthermore, the data suggest that environmental factors play a large role, as rates of depression and anxiety varied for as much as 15% in graduate students depending on the program they were in.

Further findings from the 2018 study:

  • Of those experiencing symptoms of depression or suicidal thoughts, 27% were receiving treatment. 
  • Of those experiencing symptoms of anxiety, 21% were receiving treatment 
  • Women and international students are most affected by mental health issues
  • Many students reported feeling uncomfortable discussing mental health issues with their advisors

“The prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms among [Ph.D. students] is comparable to the prevalence found in incarcerated populations.”

Paul Barreira, director of Harvard’s University Health Service

The following statistics are from a similar study conducted by the American College Health Association (ACHA) in the spring of 2019:

  • 24% of graduate students reported that stress had negatively affected their academics
  • 41% of graduate students felt so depressed it was difficult to function
  • 46% of graduate students reported that academics had been traumatic
  • 58% of graduate students reported feeling lonely
  • 63% of graduate students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety
Figure 1. The prevalence of anxiety and depression within the population of graduate students studied. (a) Overall prevalence. (b) Prevalence of anxiety and depression by gender. (c) Effect of perceived work-life balance. (d) Effect of relationship with mentor.

Conclusion:

As exemplified through the statistics above, many graduate students battle with their mental health, and few are receiving treatment. Graduate students are not provided with the necessary resources to work through their struggles, largely due to the structure of the school health programs:

“We can’t build a counseling center big enough to deal with this problem. Here we have 45 full-time-equivalent clinicians, or 55 people, for 20,000 students. That’s like one clinician for every 400 students. We’re overwhelmed, and that should tell us that the system is broken — that our approach to this has been wrong and needs to be rethought. And there are many programs that aren’t as fortunate as we are.”

Paul Barreira, director of Harvard’s University Health Service

Thank you for reading this piece on the mental health crisis among graduate students. Please visit lifeperiodt’s blog post on habits and practices that graduate students can utilise for greater mental wellness!

I encourage you to leave a comment and/or start a discussion in the section below! Feel free to contact me at brainsproutblog@gmail.com and follow the blog @brainsproutblog on Instagram for updates!

TL;DR:
  • With the financial strains, abundance of school work, possible experiences with imposter syndrome, and the seeking of employment/grants, graduate students are placed under immense amounts of stress and pressure.
  • Researchers found that graduate students are six times more likely than the general population (of a similar age range) to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. Of those, ~24% receive treatment.
  • Unfortunately, plenty of schools across the US have turned a blind eye to the mental health of their graduate students by failing to provide safe spaces and resources for students to get help. School health systems must be reformed.
Glossary:
  • Anxiety: the intense and persistent worry over everyday occurrences
  • Depression: a mood disorder that causes distressing symptoms, affecting the way one acts, thinks, and feels
  • Mental health: the level of psychological and emotional well-being
Read more (sources)!
  1. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/12/06/new-research-graduate-student-mental-well-being-says-departments-have-important 
  2. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/06/new-study-says-graduate-students-mental-health-crisis 
  3. https://www.chronicle.com/article/why-we-need-to-talk-more-about-mental-health-in-graduate-school/ 
  4. https://www.naspa.org/blog/promoting-graduate-student-mental-health-the-role-of-student-affairs-professionals-and-faculty 
  5. https://dev.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-II_SPRING_2019_GRADUATE_AND_PROFESSIONAL_REFERENCE_GROUP_EXECUTIVE_SUMMARY.pdf 
  6. A graduate student’s experience with mental health in school: https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2020/01/i-wish-i-d-taken-my-mental-health-more-seriously-grad-school 
Image Sources:
  1. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/06/new-study-says-graduate-students-mental-health-crisis 

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