Mental Health and Graduate School are More Connected Than You Think

I spent two years in post-undergrad working on a Masters in Theatre Studies. I was working full time at school in order to pay for tuition, as well as freelancing in order to stay relevant as a writer online. Part of my studies included working on productions at school, which meant I was in rehearsals or at the theatre even after work and classes were over. Halfway through my second year, I was hospitalized when my appendix burst–which usually leaves you off your feet for several months. I was back in school three weeks after discharge.

I tell you all this not for sympathy–I could have dropped out and started working at any time, I had my bachelor’s degree and was living right outside of New York. I tell you this because my experience is in no way singular. The fact that I was in both individual and group therapy sessions through 50% of my graduate degree was certainly not unique. The fact that I spent the last week of school working on my thesis for two days straight without sleeping, that I had built a nest on the floor in my living room surrounded by monster energy drinks and textbook towers three feet high; it all seemed to come with the territory. Based on research on graduate students, it seems I wasn’t wrong.

Common Graduate Student Problems

Graduate students commonly struggle with varying levels of stress, which can lead to or exacerbate depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among other mental health problems. According to an article in Psychology Today, Juliana Brienes explains some of the factors that can cause these problems include uncertain career prospects, isolation, financial stress, chronic failure, and poor work-life balance (Psychology Today).

Uncertain Career Prospects

While undergrads are encouraged to seek higher education and promised better job prospects as a result, graduate degrees can actually be a double-edged sword. As a master’s recipient, I have been told that I am over-qualified for entry-level jobs, but struggle to find other jobs that require experience I don’t yet have. This is not a problem that only affects students in the arts. Three years ago The Atlantic published an in-depth study of “America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists,” which shows that even Ph.D. graduates have trouble finding jobs. Since 2001, in fact, less than half of Ph.D. students find jobs after school and the numbers continue to decline. The article continues, “A post doc essentially translates into toiling as a low-paid lab hand…once it was just a one or two-year rite of passage where budding scientists honed their research skills. Now it can stretch on for half a decade” (The Atlantic).

Isolation

Grad students are not offered the same community resources as undergraduates. They often live off-campus or live in dorms as a resident advisor. University of California, Berkeley’s 2014, “Graduate Student Happiness and Well-Being Report,” quotes multiple grad students who suffer from a lack of social support. Problems with loneliness and lack of community were the second most popular topic in students’ written comments after financial problems.

“In well-being research generally, social relationships stand out for their importance to happiness and mental health, so it’s no surprise it matters greatly to graduate students’ wellbeing, too. Here, we ask students whether they feel they have someone they can share their most private worries and fears with. Those who agreed were more satisfied with their lives and, in particular, had substantially fewer depressive symptoms.” (Berkeley)

Living on one’s own, often for the first time, can definitely contribute to the feelings of loneliness and isolation, but it can also cause plenty of unfamiliar financial concerns, as well.

Financial Stress

While graduate students are frequently offered more fellowship or job opportunities on campus, for many this is the first time they need to find housing (sometimes far from their childhood home) and create a household budget. For my first year of grad school, I lived about fifteen minutes off campus. For the first time, I needed my own car, had to start buying my own groceries and needed furniture. The summer before classes started I worked overtime hours to store up emergency funds. My fellowship and a scholarship from my undergraduate school paid for most of my textbooks and tuition, but I still had to take out private loans to cover most of my living expenses.

Constantly worrying about money, and stressing out over where the next payment will come from or how much money is actually on loan, can keep one from going out and letting off steam. Spending what little free time you have on the couch watching Netflix can lead to even more problems.

Poor Work-Life Balance

Many students that interviewed for Berkeley’s study discussed how a poor balance between work and relaxation caused stress. One student in particular explained: “The only reason that I have been able to live comfortably this year is that a friend is letting me house-sit for half the usual rent. Otherwise money in the past has been so tight that I have to double think whether I can eat out with friends or go anywhere. It is frustrating.” Another commented “I don’t go out with friends because I can’t afford it, thus all work and no play” (Berkeley).

Graduate students are also often required to spend far more time on both schoolwork and career training than others. Breines explains “When you love your work, 60+ hours per week may not feel too bad, but some students are expected to put in far more than that, leaving little time for sleep, exercise and taking care of physical health” (Psychology Today).

Chronic Failure

No matter how well you did in undergrad, you have to know that graduate school is a whole different ball game. Those without mental health issues may struggle with the added pressure of expanded workloads combined with fellowship or internship hours and responsibilities. Add something like imposter syndrome into the mix, and anxiety, panic attacks or depression could be crippling. Carrie Arnold writes about this in her article “Paying Graduate School’s Mental Toll” for Science Magazine. She warns against holding one’s self to perfect standards, and explains imposter syndrome in greater detail.

“When Amanda Traud, a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University, began her program in biomathematics, she was convinced she had gotten in by mistake. It was only a matter of time, she thought, until her adviser and colleagues figured out that she wasn’t as smart or talented as everyone thought she was. Traud was suffering from what’s known as imposter syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which people feel like frauds. Their successes, they feel, are due to luck, not skill or hard work. Imposter syndrome is especially common in female graduate students” (Science Mag).

Mental Health in Grad School

The Prevalence of Behavioral Health Issues In Graduate School Students

The Berkeley Science Review published an interesting infographic on depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts and feelings among graduate students. Perhaps most importantly, the numbers are on the rise and don’t show any signs of slowing or changing trend.

Prevalence of issues changes slightly based on field of study. UC Berkeley’s analysis also points out that non-white students and students who identify as LGBTQ have higher rates of behavioral health issues, but in general the report found that 47% of doctoral students and 37% of master’s students surveyed “met the clinical criteria for depression” (Berkeley).

The American Psychological Association concluded that “…the magnitude of [mental health issues in graduate students] appears to vary from school to school, depending in part on how they define mental health issues” (APA.org). Research on the topic is fairly new, but one conclusion that is reached across the board has been that support for students affected by mental health issues is lacking.

Effective treatment and Coping Methods

Because support for grad students is inconsistent, many of the sources listed above recommend beginning with self-care. Recognizing and admitting that your mental health is at risk is an important first step to finding a remedy. From there, the journey is highly personal and depends on the resources available. While I was in graduate school, I relied heavily on the campus health center, where I signed up for both individual and group therapy sessions. Those suffering from depression and anxiety can look for free clinics or hotlines in the area that are willing to accommodate student schedules and cramped finances.

Berkeley’s report recommends better training for advisors and teachers, so both student and professor will be well-equipped to handle the effects that a mental health issue can have on tight deadlines or off-campus assignments. This solution is also heavily recommended by Nash Turley in the article, “Mental Health Issues Among Graduate Students” (Gradhacker).

Some students have found that simply talking with their peers about the graduate school experience can ease initial feelings of isolation or loneliness. Understanding how common your own struggles are among other students, and making friends among the student body, can help develop a connection to your program and school. “Students who feel included in the academic community, supported by their advisors and connected with their peers are typically less vulnerable to mental illness and less likely to drop out” (Psychology Today).

Sometimes the best medicine can be prevention. Many of us enter into more education to avoid paying student loans a while longer, or because we have been given empty promises of higher salary once we’re done. Before entering into a graduate or doctoral program, students should do their research and talk with people in their desired field who already earned their master’s or Ph.D., and talk to people who opted not to. Preparation for what a graduate career requires is essential. Forming a strong support team outside of school is also referenced in almost every article on the topic.

My personal therapy path focused heavily on stress and time management, learning mindfulness techniques and practicing meditation when I felt overwhelmed. Arnold stresses the importance of these methods for many grad students, explaining that for at least one student profiled in the article, “practicing yoga and mindfulness meditation, focusing on the present moment, and removing judgment about feelings and experiences…have given her a better perspective on her eating disorder and her work” (Science Magazine).

 

SOURCES:

Arnold, Carrie. “Paying Graduate School’s Mental Toll”. Science Magazine. http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2014/02/paying-graduate-schools-mental-toll

Breines, Juliana. “Graduate School and Mental Illness: Is There A Link?”, Psychology Today.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-love-and-war/201511/graduate-school-and-mental-illness-is-there-link

Turley, Nash. “Mental Health Issues Among Graduate Students,” Gradhacker. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/mental-health-issues-among-graduate-students

UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly. “Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report, 2014.” http://ga.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/wellbeingreport_2014.pdf

Weissmann, Jordan. “The Ph.D Bust: America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists–in 7 Charts”, The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/02/the-phd-bust-americas-awful-market-for-young-scientists-in-7-charts/273339/

Willyard, Cassandra. “Need to Heal Thyself?” American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2012/01/heal.aspx

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