By: Kristen Nishimi

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Graduate school can be stressful. The stressors graduate students face seem to come from all angles: seemingly constant exams, papers and presentations, high expectations from mentors and oneself, competition or comparison between peers, new social situations, and oftentimes geographic moves. And don’t forget to add in the fact that these stressors are often coupled with the ever-present and inherent pressure of academia to do good and stand-out in the world. It is therefore no surprise that graduate students, particularly those in helping professions or who conduct research related to health, report feeling high levels of stress and experience high rates of mental illness.

What is the prevalence and risk factors for mental health problems among graduate students?

A few recent surveys suggest there is a “mental health crisis” among graduate students.[1] Results of a cross-sectional survey with data from 2,279 PhD and Master’s students from across 26 countries and 234 institutions revealed that graduate students are six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population. Findings from this study also indicated that women and transgender and/or gender non-conforming populations have higher risk for mental health problems as compared to men, and that depressive and anxiety symptoms are highest among students who report having a poor work-life balance and a less supportive relationship with their advisor/principal investigator.

Another study of PhD students in Belgium indicated that one in two students experience psychological distress and one in three is at risk for having or developing a psychiatric disorder like depression.[2]

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Some of the causes for the increased mental health burden cited in these studies include:

·      poor or unsupportive relationships with mentors, including the leadership and mentoring style of the mentor

·       difficulty navigating work-family interface

·       stressful, high job demands and low job control

·       perception of limited or highly competitive career options both inside and outside academia

·       stigma regarding mental illness due to fear of not gaining tenure or risking other judgment

 

I am proud to be part of local efforts, based at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public health, to oversee student-run surveys of my peers’ mental health.  A survey in spring 2017 we conducted found high rates of depressive symptoms, particularly among doctoral students (vs. masters students), racial and ethnic minority students (vs. non-Hispanic white students), and LGBTQ students (vs. straight students). A subsequent survey was administered to students this spring, with preliminary results indicating that over half of respondents rated their current mental health as “fair” or “poor” and that their mental health negatively impacts their quality of life.

What can be done to promote mental health among graduate students?

What is clear from the evidence is that mental health problems are common among graduate students and that these mental health problems stem from a number of intra-personal, interpersonal, cultural, and structural factors.  For some students, these mental health problems are severe enough to require clinical intervention.  So, if you’re a fellow graduate student, know you’re not alone. 

What can be done to curb this mental health crisis? Findings from research conducted so far emphasize the need for shifts in institutional culture focusing on the core causes of mental distress, rather than quick fixes. Some efforts proposed include:

·       improving incentives at graduate universities to provide more effective career and professional development programs

·       educating faculty on the impact of graduate education to students’ mental health

·       reducing stigma surrounding mental health

In California, such efforts are already proving successful in increasing the number of students receiving mental health services. 

Graduate students can also seek support from both clinical and non-clinical sources, many of which are available at graduate institutions. Additionally, graduate students can be supportive of each other; identifying classmates who may need extra support and being understanding, non-judgmental, and caring may help improve mental health and lower stigma.

As mental health researchers, we recognize and understand the need to protect and promote the mental wellness of graduate students. The growing recognition of this problem, the dialogue regarding potential solutions, and emerging strategies to promote graduate student mental health suggest there are promising opportunities on the horizon.

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