The Mental Health Toll of Graduate Education: How Lack of Support and Work-Life Balance Affect Graduate Students

Author: Isabel D. Colón-Bernal; Editors: Callie Corsa, Zena Lapp and Irene Park

When I first came to the University of Michigan for recruitment weekend back in March of 2015, I was shocked to hear other recruits commenting on how Michigan graduate students seemed more cheery than graduate students at other institutions. I was even more shocked to learn students at other institutions have died by suicide recently; these include but are not limited to Anna Owensby from Scripps Research Institute, Jason Altom from Harvard University, and Han Nguyen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Wondering what I had just gotten myself into by deciding to pursue a Ph.D., I decided to read more about the matter. According to a Science article, the University of California found that about 60% of graduate students felt symptoms of depression or anxiety nearly all the time in grad school, and one in ten students contemplated suicide within a year. I expected graduate school to be challenging, but I never imagined it could reach suicidal ideation for some students. What could be causing these mental health issues for graduate students?

 

Studies Demonstrate the Extent of Mental Health Issues Graduate Students Face

There are numerous peer-reviewed studies that show I am not the only one to notice the difference that adequate support and work-life balance can make on students’ well-being. A study published in March 2018 in Nature Biotechnology surveyed 2,279 individuals (90% of Ph.D. students and 10% of master’s students) across 26 countries and 234 institutions in diverse fields of study. The authors of the study found that graduate students are six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the general population.

In this study, students revealed that work-life balance and student-advisor relationships most influenced their mental well-being. 56% and 55% of students with anxiety and depression, respectively, did not report having a good work-life balance. In addition, 50% of students who experienced depression or anxiety felt they did not have adequate mentorship from their advisor, as opposed to 36% who reported having adequate mentorship. Further, approximately 50% of students who answered that their advisors did not provide adequate mentorship did not agree that their advisor positively impacted their mental well-being. In this study, adequate mentorship was defined as whether the student received ample support and felt valued by their advisor, whether the advisor positively impacted their emotional or mental well-being, and whether their advisor was perceived as an asset to the student’s career.

The role of one’s advisor is not surprising, as numerous studies demonstrate the negative effects on an employee that has a bad relationship with their supervisor. Those effects include a higher risk for depression, having an overall higher blood pressure throughout the day, and a 20% higher risk of developing heart disease.

Long work hours also seem to affect employees’ mental health. A recent study evaluated work hours per day to study the relationship between long work hours and depressive symptoms. The authors found that employees working long hours (+10 hours/day) when compared to employees working shorter hours had a higher chance of depressive symptoms among those with low satisfaction. In other words, the combination of long work hours with low job satisfaction seem to be the ideal recipe to develop depressive symptoms.

As a Ph.D. candidate, I have personally witnessed the difference a supportive advisor combined with a good work-life balance and good job satisfaction (or its grad student equivalent) have made on my own mental and physical well-being, my work productivity, and my dissertation progress.

 

How are PhD Programs Addressing this Graduate Student Mental Health Toll?

Are graduate programs and departments aware of the mental toll we pay as graduate students? Are programs missing the mark when it comes to advisor-student relationships and ensuring students have adequate work-life balance? Do they understand how intertwined these two aspects of graduate school are? The answer is not a simple “yes” or “no” and is highly dependent on individual departments and universities. What we do know is that more research or reporting is needed on how universities, programs or departments are addressing this crisis, and how effective initiatives have been after implementation.

To make matters worse, the negative stigma surrounding mental health can influence a student’s view of their situation; those that need help are perceived as weak or broken-down. This negative stigma can discourage students from participating in mental health initiatives and support options provided by their program or university. Anecdotally, peers have mentioned that they are not aware of available internal resources. In other words, formal support or services may not be reaching all students that might benefit from them.

As described in the Science article referenced earlier, even if most staff members are well aware of internal resources, some professors may not be familiar with all available resources. Some could also lack the skills to identify students showing warning signs. Incorporating training for identification of mental health warning signs for staff and faculty can be key to addressing this crisis.

On a more positive note, students have been proactive in creating initiatives such as the well-being and mental health peer support network at the University of California, Berkeley, and the UKNIGHTED Chemistry Graduate Student Association at the University of Central Florida. Both of these student-led groups provide more informal peer support to chemistry graduate students by giving them a supportive space online and in person via social activities.

 

As a graduate student who has struggled with my own mental and emotional health, I always do my best to extend a hand to my peers and friends in need. Personally, consistent yoga practice and meditation have made a significant difference in my mental well-being, aside from having a supportive advisor. As I realized I was not alone in this struggle, you are not alone either. If you aren’t struggling with your mental well-being, consider how you can help others in your program or close to you by listening or providing the support they need. Reaching out and finding the help you deserve can be life-changing, and even life-saving.

 

Available Support at Michigan and Some External Resources

As students at the University of Michigan (UM), we have access to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). CAPS provide support and other services to all enrolled students at UM and have several support groups exclusive for graduate students as well as individual therapy. Another resource is Wellness Coaching provided by the University Health Service, where they take a more holistic approach to personal well-being, which encompasses emotional and mental health. If you aren’t a people person and own an Android or an iPhone, you can download CAPS’s Stressbusters app. The Stressbusters app lets students and UM affiliates access campus events, health tips, emergency numbers, and several other features to lower our stress in the privacy of our phone screens. In addition, Grad Resources is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing emotional support to all graduate students in the U.S.

However, if you have tried UM’s resources in the past yet felt they didn’t vibe with you, you can check out these awesome external resources. This list is put together and published by Crisis Text Line (CTL), a non-profit organization that provides support to people in need via text messages. CTL’s list includes Half of Us, breathing exercises, coping skills resources, Stop, Breathe, & Think app, and many more. These are only a few of the many resources available (on- and offline) for those who are struggling or those that have friends and family members that are struggling with their mental well-being.


IMG_2851Isabel is a graduate student and scientific communications writing fellow in the chemistry department at the University of Michigan. As a member of the Banaszak Holl Lab (no longer at UM), her research is on understanding the change in chemical composition of bones and microstructure of collagen as a function of disease and treatment, and how this relates to mechanical properties. She came to Michigan after graduating from her bachelorís degree in Chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras campus. When she isn’t in the lab, Isabel enjoys spending time with her dogs, doing yoga, navigating Chemistry Twitter and working on science communication. Follow her on Twitter (@BoriChemist) and Linkedin.

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