What To Do About The Graduate Student Mental Health Crisis

A study of depression and anxiety among graduate students has found that 39% of its survey respondents “scored in the moderate-to-severe depression range.”

The study, “Mental Health Crisis in Graduate Education: The Data and Intervention Strategies,” by Teresa Marie Evans (UT Health San Antonio), Lindsay Bira (UT Health San Antonio), Jazmin Beltran-Gastelum (St. Mary’s), L. Todd Weiss (Kentucky), and Nathan Vanderford (Kentucky) and another study showing high rates of depression among graduate students, “Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students,” by Katia Levecque (Ghent), Frederik Anseel (Ghent), Alain De Beuckelaer (Radboud), JohanVan der Heyden (Scientific Institute of Public Health, Brussels), and Lyddia Gisle (Scientific Institute of Public Health, Brussels), are discussed today in an article at Inside Higher Ed.

Self-selection bias may have inflated the numbers in both studies, but even discounting them by half would leave the rates of depression they found among graduate students strikingly higher than the 6% found in the general population.

What to do about this? Colleen Flaherty at IHE reports:

The authors suggest that institutions follow a successful National Institutes of Health program “train the trainer” model, in which faculty members and administrators are trained by mental health professionals to recognize and respond to students’ needs, providing referrals as needed. The same model could be used by career development professionals to train faculty members to help today’s Ph.D.s compete in the “vast and ever-changing job market,” they added.

Perhaps less simple, the study advocates a “shift in the culture within academia to eliminate the stigma [surrounding mental health issues] and ensure that students are not reluctant to communicate openly with their faculty advisors.” The authors do note that many in academe have spoken out about their own struggles. Yet, they say, fears of not gaining tenure or otherwise being judged by colleagues remain.

The paper also pushes for work-life balance, which it acknowledges is “hard to attain in a culture where it is frowned upon to leave the laboratory before the sun goes down,” especially in an ever-competitive funding environment. Faculty and administrators must nevertheless “set a tone of self-care as well as an efficient and mindful work ethic” to move the dial, they say.

Some readers may recall philosopher Peter Railton’s Dewey Lecture at the 2015 Central Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association (APA), in which he discussed his experience with mental illness and called for more openness about it, as well as the “Philosophy and Depression” post in which many philosophers answered Railton’s call. There have also been discussions of mental illness in the interviews conducted at Discrimination and Disadvantagefor example, this one with Audrey Yap (Univ. Victoria).

In an effort to elaborate on how to pursue any of the three strategies discussed above for responding to high rates of mental illness among graduate students, or alternatives to them, those who have had positive and negative experiences, at the levels of institutional policy or interpersonal interaction, are invited to share their views about what has helped and what hasn’t.

Edgar Degas, “Two Dancers Resting”

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