Kathleen Moore is a PhD candidate in Higher Education at the University of Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter @kathleenmoore_ where she tweets about graduate education, mental health, and disability.
Is there a graduate student mental health crisis in universities? On the GradHacker blog, several authors address graduate students’ mental health, including topics such as self-care, anxiety, and trauma. One post, “Addressing Mental Health Issues Among Graduate Students,” presents a few ways that graduate departments can support graduate students’ mental health including: openly acknowledging that student mental health is an issue that needs to be addressed, providing information and training to academic advisors and faculty, and offering courses or workshops that teach yoga and mindfulness techniques.
In comparison to the undergraduate context, the graduate education context has some key differences, including the competitive nature of graduate school and the significant periods of isolation. Not only is the graduate experience different, but there are a number of reasons why programs and services should be customized to meet the needs of graduate students. For example:
- Graduate students may not want to go to a counselling office where they may see students that they teach.
- Graduate students may be completing research and fieldwork internationally, thereby not having access to face-to-face supports.
- Graduate students may work full-time or have family responsibilities that prevent them from being able to attend programs or services that take place during the workday.
I continue to wonder, though, if institutions, student services offices, and academic departments should be planning mental health programs and services to meet the unique needs of graduate students. Should mental health policies and services be customized to meet the needs of graduate students specifically? And, if so, what would this look like? Here, I share several recommendations that should be considered before, during, and after the implementation of customized mental health programs and services.
1. Who are we referring to when we talk about “graduate student” mental health?
When the topic of graduate students’ mental health is discussed it is often done so using “graduate student” as an overarching concept that includes several different populations. There are a lot of subgroups that fall under this umbrella of graduate students. For example, even though we know that there are differences between the master’s and doctoral student experiences, institutions, student services, and departments often lump these two groups together (this is also evident in the research in this area). Similarly, institutions often do not consider how services addressing student mental health might differ according to whether students are in professional (a.k.a. executive or cost recovery) programs. This has implications for the kinds of support as well as the timing of the support systems. While most traditional academic graduate programs offer part time work through research assistantships and teaching assistantships, students in professional programs often juggle a full time 9-5 job in addition to their graduate studies. These programs are typically course-based, highly structured, offered on nights or weekends, cost more, and often include licensure requirements like those for dentistry, medicine, law, and optometry. Often times, for students in professional programs, a student’s job is also the site of their research, which can add layers of complexity (and stress) to their graduate programs (see for example, the recent blog by Susan Fowler, who lost her eligibility for the Computer Science graduate program at Stanford because of her employment reviews).
In addition to thinking about the differences between master’s and doctoral level and professional versus non-professional (or “academic”) programs, institutions, student services offices, academic departments, and faculty also need to consider differences according to various student characteristics. For example, the stressors and needs of international students may greatly differ from other student populations, such as Indigenous, local, or domestic students. International students often have stressors concerning culture shock and language difficulties, which other students may not experience to the same degree. Other differences in mental health concern gender, where, for example, some research suggests female and LGBTQ students experience higher levels of stress and are more likely to seek mental health support in comparison to their male counterparts.
Given the number of specific populations of graduate students, what would customized mental health programs and services look like for master’s students? Doctoral students? Professional students? International students?
2. What do we mean by “mental health”?
If you have been reading about mental health at all, you have probably noticed that the terminology in this area is quite confusing. You might have come across: mental health, well-being, mental illness, mental disorder, problem, or challenge, as well as mental health disability. While I won’t go into detail about how to define each of these terms, what I will say is that it is possible that student services departments, and academic departments, faculty, and even students themselves, do not know how to define each of these. For example, if I asked you about the difference between a mental health problem and a mental health disability would you be able to explain it?
With clarification of these terms, programs and services can be customized to meet the needs of these specific subpopulations. For example, when we talk about mental health this is something that all graduate students have. Mental health or well-being is part of the larger concept of health, which also includes physical, spiritual, and social health and well-being. Given all graduate students have mental health, how do institutions, student services, academic departments, and faculty, support the mental health of all graduate students? This might be in the form of workshops concerning mindfulness and coping with stress, for example. In contrast to the broad concept of mental health, other terms like mental health problem and mental health disability only apply to certain students. Services that are geared towards students who identify as having a mental health problem or disability may not apply to the broader graduate student population, and instead, may involve services like accommodations. Therefore, when programs, services, and information are provided, there needs to be consideration of who exactly it is geared towards: all students or specific students?
3. Considering the student pipeline
In addition to looking at what is meant by graduate student and mental health, the student pipeline also needs to be considered. By student pipeline, I mean that we need to think about how students move from undergraduate programs, to master's programs, to doctoral programs, and then into a post-doc position or other career position. This is one example of a student trajectory, but of course, there are many circumstances in which this trajectory greatly differs. This could include stop outs, part time students, and the ambiguous “non-traditional” students as well. Each of these education levels can also be broken down into smaller milestones. At the doctoral level, for example, we can break this down into: induction, completion of coursework, comprehensive exams, the dissertation proposal, and the dissertation. We know that many students drop out before they get to the comprehensive exam stage, and we know that others tend to drop out late in the dissertation stage, but, are there specific mental health challenges at each stage and corresponding services that target these challenges?
The first step towards improving services is to first think about what institutions, student services offices, and academic departments are currently doing to meet the mental health needs of various graduate student populations. I invite you to consider the following questions and leave a response below, share your experiences (good or bad), or pose your thoughts and questions for consideration.
If you’ve accessed mental health services or resources, what has been useful for you? What was unproductive or not very useful?
Do you think mental health programs and services should be customized to meet the needs of graduate students specifically? And, if so, what would this look like?
Does your institution gear mental health information and services to different stages of the doctoral student experience (e.g. coursework, comprehensive exams, proposal, dissertation)?
[Image by Flickr user Edgar Languren and used under Creative Commons licensing.]
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