When we think of the term "mental health," what do we really mean? A broad definition would be the state of the psychological and emotional well-being of an individual. However, it has come to mean and involve so much more. Mental health also involves the conceptualization of self-reflection, self-awareness, and the development of a sense of self. This description of mental well-being may seem an abstract concept, but when we experience a decline in our mental health, it often shows up in physical manifestations of stress/anxiety and bleeds into multiple parts of our lives. Graduate students are not excluded from this. In fact, the expectations and environment of academia make grad students more susceptible to mental health decline. And people are talking about it.
A 2018 research article by Evans and colleagues highlighted how mental illness is an increasing concern within academia and that intervention-based policies can help curb the growing problem. Researchers found that "graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population." And of the 2,279 individuals who participated in the study (90% PhD candidates, 10% Master's students), 41% of graduate students scored as having moderate to severe anxiety, and 39% had moderate to severe depression. Even more alarming, the study found that the rate of anxiety and depression in transgender graduate students was significantly higher than their cis-gendered counterparts. Studies like this bring focus to the importance of mental health. Furthermore, mental health decline in response to the COVID-19 pandemic emphasizes the significance of understanding what mental well-being entails, supporting each other by telling our stories, and sharing our cognitive stress-processing strategies/resources. With that, here are some strategies on how graduate students can take steps to prioritize their mental well-being.
Be open to acknowledging the headspace you are in
Making a conscious effort to improve and maintain your mental health starts with an awareness of your mental health status. In my experience, it was my significant other and close friends who noted my mental health decline as I was no longer participating in social activities and began to speak negatively about myself. However, not everyone has a strong support system. As individuals, we need to be aware of our mental health regularly. Acknowledge how you feel and make a quick note about it on a daily/or weekly basis. Note apps, written journal entries, e-journal entries, and online spreadsheets are all tools to help you track your state of mind. The note can be as little or big of a description as you want but should include your overall feelings. Over time you can find patterns and identify what events/conditions activate specific emotions. Mental health management is a personal journey, and there is no right or wrong way to go about it when it comes to identifying your emotions and their validity.
Identify what conditions/environment may act as stressors on your mental health
If you know that a particular place or event will make you nervous or stressed, you need to prepare for that. In academia, you may not have the choice to avoid stress-linked locations or tasks. For example, if you identify a specific school building as an environmental trigger where exams are taken, avoiding that building may not be possible. But you can prepare for the emotions you might have by taking a note of feelings that arise when you are there and strategize how you can tamper down your nervousness. Take a look at the table below for some examples of stress and anxiety symptoms:
Be prepared to set boundaries
In the name of personal well-being, we have to become comfortable with setting up boundaries. For graduate students, a typical example that comes to mind is setting work/life boundaries about the time allocated to work and being comfortable saying no. Setting boundaries can trigger other stressors graduate students face, like imposter syndrome and a sense of self-worth tied to productivity. It is okay to prioritize your primary responsibilities and not take on extra work that may be asked of you. Also, setting boundaries between your professional and work-life helps ameliorate stressors associated with mental health decline.
Outlets for processing stress and anxiety
Many outlets can help ease anxiety, process your mental status in high-stress situations, or be utilized in real-time moments of high anxiety. Check out the table below for some methods:
Find a supportive community
When I was suffering a mental health decline, I heavily depended on my friends and family. But seeing and interacting with others within the academic community helped tremendously. Talking with others who knew the stress and anxiety associated with graduate school gave me a sense of belonging. Online communities are abundant on social media platforms. There is a strong online support network of mental health advocates that want to help students with their mental health, and a few are listed at the end of this post. Also, if there are university faculty, staff, or previous mentors you feel comfortable confiding in about your mental health struggles, reach out!
The T-word: Therapy
Therapy is a personal choice. If forced, it can backfire. For graduate students, two significant barriers to seeking therapy are finances and time. So, budgeting for therapy sessions and finding the time to do it can be overwhelming. Students should check if their programs offer therapy or if the school's insurance will reimburse them for therapy sessions. Online therapies are also a great resource, as many offer financial assistance and the convenience of multiple therapy approaches (phone calls, texting, and video chat). Furthermore, the convenience of online therapy allows students to realistically implement therapy in their daily lifestyle and have more emotionally comfortable options than the standard face-to-face methodology. For those on the fence about therapy, check out the podcast Science Vs by Gimlet media to hear more on whether therapy can be an option for you. They recently had a great segment on therapy and if it really helps people.
There are a lot of ways graduate students can take steps to prioritize and better their mental well-being. And, of course, this isn't going to happen all in one day. Our society for so long has stigmatized mental healthcare initiatives, and it intertwines with racial and socioeconomic barriers, making open conversations about mental health a societal taboo. But there is an ongoing active shift of change within the academic community and general population. I hope these tips serve our community well and help fellow graduate students on their path to maintaining their mental health! At the end of this post, readers can also find a list of resources for online and affordable therapy options, mental health group organizations, and online social media graduate student mental health support communities.
Resources for therapy:
Resources for mental health crisis:
Resources for faith based mental health resources:
Mental health support communities in Academia on Twitter: