The Mental Health Crisis: Graduate Students Need Help
The Mental Health Crisis: Graduate Students Need Help

This article originally appeared in The Observatory by Paulette Delgado. Sara Oswalt, Department Chair and Professor of Public Health, is quoted extensively about her research.


Despite being in a time of great financial stress and uncertainty, universities should not stop investing resources to address the mental health of their students. According to a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine of the United States, graduate students are at risk of a mental health crisis across the country. Alan Leshner, who chaired the committee behind the report, says that “the problem is as big or bigger than ever, and it’s not getting better. Unless there is concerted attention, the situation will worsen because the pressures will not disappear.”

Mental HealthGraduate students often feel that they do not have access to good mental health care and that their only support or guidance is their supervisors, who are not a good resource. In addition, these young people often feel pressured to adapt to work and meet family expectations, worsening their situation.

For the panorama to really improve, a cultural change is needed beyond investing money; it must involve the rector to the students. Educators and other members of universities should receive formal training in how to support and address the well-being of students, who should also learn about various mental health issues as part of their introductory training.

In a survey conducted in December 2020 by the American Council on Education, 68% of university presidents recognize that students’ mental health is one of their most urgent problems. The dropout rate for students with problems of this type ranges between 43% and 68%, making the conflict about mental health and the institutions’ effectiveness and economy.

In addition, the pandemic has dramatically increased the need and demand for support for psychological and psychiatric services. According to Sara Oswalt, a public health scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who has tracked mental health rates and use of services to keep her on campus since 2009, she says, “Mental-health services are overwhelmed. The challenges students are facing now are different than they were in the past. It’s hard to quantify what it’s doing to their mental heart.” Resources are exceedingly scarce at small private institutions and two-year colleges.

Sadly, the effects of the pandemic could last long after the virus is brought under control, as it triggered an outbreak of anxiety or depression that some students were unable to handle and fell into unhealthy escape mechanisms such as alcohol.

According to research that studied the change in alcohol consumption during the closure of universities due to COVID-19, before students, the highest alcohol consumption reported by students was 63 drinks per week, and now it is 98. The average number increased from three and a half to more than five. The author, William Lechner, warns that the change in consumption could last for years and have lasting neuronal and psychological consequences.

The pressures of academia

Another sector with mental health problems is young researchers, as they are pressured to obtain funds, publish and get jobs in a brutally competitive market, where failure seems not to be an option. A survey conducted last year of 13,000 academics by Cactus Communications showed that more than a third (38%) of the participants feel constantly overwhelmed by their work situation.

Professional uncertainty has triggered much of the anxiety and depression in the academic community. Many members have temporary contracts that make them always think about the future without assurance that things will improve. This situation leads them to work long hours and prioritize their career at the cost of their mental health.

In a 2019 Nature survey, 76% of graduates answered that they work more than 40 hours a week, and nearly 40% said they are dissatisfied with their work-life balance. Another problem is that they don’t feel they have the support they need to get ahead. Although they have mentors and colleagues with whom they should share their work, 21% of them experience harassment or discrimination, especially women or participants who are part of ethnic minority groups.

Another reason why not all researchers seek support is perceived stigma and lack of awareness of the resources that exist. Many do not even know what options they have or the support their universities offer; it takes many diffusions. And when students do learn about resources, they are not always available.

report from the Council of Graduate Schools and the Jed Foundation found that many Ph.D. students described problems receiving support. One of these difficulties is the hours of counseling centers that close after 5 pm and on weekends, limiting access for those who take classes, work, and research. In addition, many fear meeting students from their classes or co-workers or resources are beyond their financial reach.

Some institutions have chosen to implement programs focused on integral well-being, such as yoga, meditation, and time management workshops. Many studies argue that students and researchers have problems setting limits between work and life; these resources plan to boost resilience, motivate students, and better plan their work.

However, Katia Levecque, a psychology and law researcher at the University of Ghent in Belgium, argues that these measures, while they do help, do not address the structural causes of mental health problems; they only focus on the symptoms. In addition, they are programs directed at the individual, which according to the psychologist, can create a mentality of “blame the victim.” They appear that the problem is individual and not structural; the culture and the system need to be changed.

Levecque cautions that if this mentality continues, higher education institutions will not retain students affected by the problem. “They will lose the war of talents — it’s as simple as that. If other jobs (outside of academia) are better paid, have more prospects, and enable work-life balance, why should you stay?”

Another important aspect is that many graduate students often receive scholarships, so their income is committed to their status as students, which prevents them from taking vacations or time to dedicate themselves to improving their mental health. That is why institutions must strengthen their internal policies to allow those students committed to their studies to focus on their well-being without fear of being left without financial support. Additionally, universities must enact policies that address harassment and discrimination as significant factors affecting mental health. Returning to the Cactus survey, 23% of the participants ask academic organizations to implement measures to promote equality and prevent harassment, discrimination, and intimidation.

To tackle this crisis, universities must prepare students to acquire communication skills, leadership, conflict resolution, and entrepreneurship, says Suzanne Ortega, the Council of Graduate Schools president. In addition, a balanced life would alienate academics from a culture of “publish or perish.” Normalize vacations, free time, retirement, or create a work culture in which you don’t have to be productive all the time. Time Lab leaders can begin the change by providing greater schedule flexibility to allow for more free time – there is a long way to go.

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