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Is There a Mental Health Crisis in Graduate Schools?
Studies reveal a staggering number of students suffer from anxiety and depression. What’s the solution?
By Courtney Suciu
Citing a recent Harvard study, Alia Wong reported in The Atlantic1 that 18% of the graduate students surveyed suffered from moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression – three times the U.S. national average. In addition, “roughly one in 10 students in the Harvard survey also reported having suicidal thoughts on several days within the prior two weeks.”
Wong’s article “Graduate School Can Have Terrible Effects on People’s Mental Health,” noted that among the respondents, just one in four of those who suffered suicidal thoughts sought regular mental health treatment, and those who “scored worse than average on a mental health assessment tended to think their mental health was better than average” – including participants who reported suicidal ideation. Among them, “26 percent assumed that their psychological well-being was better than the norm.”
“This dissonance hints at the ubiquity of the problem – the widespread acceptance of poor mental health as a fact of life in graduate education,” Wong concluded.
What is behind this mental health crisis on university campuses? And – most urgently – what can be done about it?
Factors that influence distress among graduate students
Numerous other studies have demonstrated the high rates of depression and anxiety among graduate students, and work-life imbalance is frequently considered one of the biggest factors.
In an article for The University Star2 at Texas State University, James Debbah noted a study by the Science Direct Journal which found “as many as one in two doctoral students face psychological distress and one in three are at risk of a common psychiatric disorder such as depression.”
Debbah spoke with a communications professor who recalled being expected as a graduate student to read an average of a thousand pages weekly on top of fulfilling his teaching duties. “A doctoral program is akin to having two full-time jobs,” Debbah wrote, explaining that a typical day in the life of many graduate students “consists of preparing for their lecture, teaching their class, grading, writing and attending class,” which leaves little room for personal relationships and sleep.
Financial circumstances can also affect mental health. In her piece for The Atlantic, Wong reported roughly a quarter of Ph.D. candidates in the humanities had more than $70,000 in education-related debt, and slim job prospects. According to her research, “nearly 40 percent of doctoral students surveyed hadn’t secured a job at the time of graduation…and for those who do secure an academic post, census data suggests that close to a third of part-time university faculty – many of whom are graduate students – live near or below the poverty line.”
In addition, an editorial from the Graduate Student Council published in the Stanford Daily3 at Stanford University shed light on the impact of self-doubt on anxiety and depression, citing “imposter syndrome and burnout” as “common side effects of graduate school.”
A student who struggles with their workload, financial burdens, personal relationships and uncertainty about the future but doesn’t see other students experiencing similar challenges might doubt their abilities and accomplishments. This can foster a sense of isolation and internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. The result may be shame about seeking mental health support.
“What we need is a shift in the culture surrounding mental health and targeted resources,” the Graduate Student Council declared, announcing that the organization would be “prioritizing its advocacy efforts on mental health to dismantle stigma and urge the university to support graduate student needs.”
Destigmatizing graduate student mental health care
For the Graduate Student Council, such a shift would require university faculty to be more proactive in promoting graduate student mental health, as stated in the Stanford Daily:
if we want graduate students to thrive, this cultural change requires participation from all stakeholders – including professors and administrators…Graduate students take their social cues from their departments and laboratories. So resources can go underutilized if departmental cultures don’t promote well-being.
On a similar note, in The Journal for Quality and Participation4, Maria Di Pierro also urged educators to nurture stronger relationships with students and encourage more open communication with them.
“Perhaps we have misread our students when we consider them outspoken, poised, edgy, demanding, sophisticated, and self-assured,” she wrote, citing research that indicated more than 70 percent of graduate students surveyed would not confide in faculty if they experienced mental health difficulties. She expressed concern that it would also be unlikely to seek out professional counseling support, as well.
“For the most part, students are not going to unmask their insecurities to their advisors unless they are encouraged to do so without fear of being undermined at the dissertation stage or beyond when they are seeking a career,” Di Pierro added.
International students at American universities might be especially vulnerable to stressors that can trigger anxiety and depression, she continued. They often lack, or are unaware of, resources to help them adjust “to a new country; university system; graduate program; language; and to a new, relatively uncertain world.”
There can also be confusion between the expectations of American educators and international students who are uncomfortable asserting themselves. Di Pierro explained, “cultural customs and norms may prevent confrontation or awareness of the right to defend oneself with anyone, but in particular with faculty members or dissertation advisors for fear of appearing rude or of reprisals.”
Advisors must take a more holistic approach to helping domestic and international students navigate these numerous difficulties, according to Di Pierro. “In times past, we may have regarded our students from a one-dimensional perspective – the academic,” she argued. “This perspective is limited; our students’ worlds are highly nuanced and varied…they are confronted by myriad challenges we can no longer ignore.”
Increased awareness and sensitivity to such challenges can position university faculty and administrators to ameliorate this mental health crisis. While educators can’t be expected to take the place of professional therapists, they do have a critical role in assuaging anxiety and depression among graduate students by engaging empathetically, encouraging communication and destigmatizing treatment. These efforts can be life-changing and, for many students, life-saving.
Learn more about ProQuest's Global Challenges initiative.
For further research
Discover diverse resources for better insights, better research and better learning about mental health issues among graduate students:
Behavioral and Mental Health Online
This ever-growing multi-media database includes: clinical mental health demonstrations, video of real clinical mental health sessions, largest amount of DSM-5®/ICD-10 video content, documentaries on the human condition, psychotherapy transcripts, client narratives, reference works, clinical mental health textbooks and workbooks, psychological experiments and more.
Check out sample video case studies, such as:
Overcoming the Imposter Phenomenon: Working with Clients of Color
Cooper, S. E. (2005). Evidence-Based Psychotherapy Practice in College Mental Health.
Iarovici, D. (2014). Mental Health Issues and the University Student.
Jones, S. R. (2017). College Student Mental Health.
Hodges, S. P. L. A., Shelton, K. P., Brooks, M. P. L. N., & Lyn, M. P. (2015). The College and University Counseling Manual: Integrating Essential Services Across the Campus.
Survey of College Mental Health Services. (2015).
ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global
Barton, B. A. (2011). Prevalence and Correlates of Depression and Anxiety Disorders in U.S. Graduate Students. (Order No. 3480878).
Bifulco, L. (2011). Depression, Anxiety and Health Behaviors Among Female Graduate Students. (Order No. 1504289).
La Touche, R. A. (2017). Graduate Students' Mental Health: Departmental Contexts as a Source of Differential Risk. (Order No. 10599823).
- Wong, Alia. (2018, November). Graduate School Can Have Terrible Effects on People’s Mental Health. The Atlantic.
- Debbah, J. (2018, Oct 24). Graduate Students Are Experiencing A Mental Health Crisis. University Wire. Available from Global Newsstream and ProQuest Central.
- Graduate School Professors Must Promote Mental Health. (2018, Sep 24). University Wire. Available from Global Newsstream and ProQuest Central.
- Di Pierro, M. (2017). Mental Health and the Graduate Student Experience. The Journal for Quality and Participation, 40(1), 24-27. Available from ProQuest Central and Health Research Premium Collection.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu