Graduate Students: Mind Your Mental Health This Fall

Recognizing stressors and using university resources may help.

Ryan LaneAugust 4, 2020

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The coronavirus is leading to plenty of uncertainty and anxiety among college students. But for graduate students, those feelings are nothing new.

A 2018 study in the journal Nature Biotechnology found that “graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population.”

That’s due to factors like poor work-life balance and looming graduation deadlines, says Bradley Sommer, president and CEO of the nonprofit National Association of Graduate-Professional Students.

“To be a grad student in this country is to be constantly in a state of stress,” says Sommer, who's also a fifth-year doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Graduate students are facing many pressing issues as they evaluate their fall 2020 plans — like if their funding will be cut off or if they’ll have access to research labs. But they can’t overlook the pandemic’s potential toll on their mental well-being.

Here are three tips to help cope with that stress.

1. Acknowledge your feelings

Grad students still may not know if they can continue their studies. That could affect things like fellowship funding and employment stipends. But it could also lead to noneducational consequences, like losing access to health insurance.

“Not having health insurance during a pandemic is suboptimal,” Sommer says.

That’s not the only external stressor graduate students may face. They could be feeling alone or isolated from quarantining, or they could be taking care of family members affected by COVID-19.

If you’re overwhelmed, that’s understandable. It’s also normal, says Geoffrey Young, senior director of student affairs and programs for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

“Having periods of sadness, depression and uncertainty is not atypical during these very uncertain times,” says Young, who's a clinical psychologist by training.

A big step toward dealing with these intense emotions is to be honest with yourself about what you’re feeling. When difficult moments arise, look for a strategy that helps you cope. The AAMC offers a list of resources with information on potential options, such as meditating and exercising.

2. Take advantage of university support services

Whether your feelings are temporary or ongoing, your school likely has counseling services that can offer assistance.

In a 2017 Council of Graduate Schools survey, 96% of graduate school deans said their school or institution offered mental health support or crisis counseling. However, additional CGS research has shown that schools may struggle to promote these services.

Your school might offer expanded services due to the pandemic. Young says the AAMC has offered additional recommendations to help medical schools address mental health. Other graduate schools have also adapted to support their students’ needs.

For example, UCLA Counseling and Psychological Services has currently eliminated its cap on counseling. Students were previously limited to three or six sessions, depending on their insurance.

Letty Trevino, vice president of academic affairs of the Graduate Student Association at UCLA, says the school has also increased group therapy, “so students are meeting with multiple students who are going through similar situations.” Trevino, who’s also a fifth-year Ph.D. student, says she’s found these sessions very helpful.

Visit your institution’s student affairs website to learn more about its support services.

3. Use other available resources

In addition to counseling, your school may have other resources that help your well-being. For example, Trevino says UCLA has made online workout classes, healthy recipes and yoga meditation apps readily accessible.

“Find something that makes you happy and do it,” she says. “Indulge in it.”

She says research productivity should take a back seat to being in the appropriate headspace.

Still, in-person research may be what pays the bills. And mental health resources may not address stress related to circumstances that work affects, like your finances or living arrangements.

The CGS said via email that a shift to remote learning is “very unlikely to affect either stipends or housing.” But some may still struggle to make ends meet, even if they max out graduate student loans.

Trevino says many graduate students work multiple jobs. Those positions — like babysitting or service industry jobs — may no longer be available.

If you need financial assistance, find out what emergency financial aid your university offers. For example, the University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate Student Emergency Fund has changed its rules to provide funds for temporary housing or students who have been unable to work due to COVID-19.

No matter the reason, reach out to your graduate program director if you’re struggling. The CGS says it's “confident that graduate schools will continue to be flexible and as accommodating as possible” to meet the needs of their students.

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