Consider This: You Can Improve the Mental Health and Wellness of Our Grad Students

Graduate student mental health is a contentious issue in the post-secondary world. On the one hand, high levels of stress and challenge can…

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Graduate student mental health is a contentious issue in the post-secondary world. On the one hand, high levels of stress and challenge can drive a budding academic to success, but on the other hand, the combined effects of social isolation, uncertain career prospects, demanding research and teaching loads, coursework, and constant evaluation can inhibit their development.

What Are Our Grad Students Up Against?

Given that they are often in their late 20's and beyond, graduate students face issues that come with life as an independent adult. In addition to their studies, many need to balance financial commitments, parental and family demands, and in a number of cases full-time work (which may or may not be related to their academic pursuits). It's no wonder that graduate students are six times more likely to experience significant stress, depression and anxiety than the general population.

How Can the Academy Change?

We need to provide mental health supports and counselling, but that is not sufficient: we need to consider the influence of the work environment. Think back to your own graduate student experience - it was likely a time of intensified stress in your life. Why? Because the foundations of academia are focus, critique, and constant evaluation. The fear of failure is real. Given the time demands and focus required to meet your academic goals, personal matters are overlooked or abandoned; your abilities are constantly questioned; and your work is always scrutinized. The persistent fear of failure colours the work environment and is a cultural issue that crosses our disciplinary boundaries.

Because we cannot all be psychologists or counsellors (nor should we), we must look for approaches to collectively help our students in real ways that can make our world of focus, critique, and evaluation not just bearable, but reasonable. This is where the role of the supervisory relationships must come into consideration. Supervisors are critical players in the life of a grad student. They often play a role in locating a grad student's funding options, structuring a grad student's time and access to learning/teaching opportunities, and shaping the graduate student's perception of what a normal career in academia and beyond could look like. Supervisors of the past have been seen as "gatekeepers" - looking to weed out the weak while allowing those who succeed to continue the cycle of stress. But now, the view that graduate students should be expected to 'endure' is being replaced with a more inclusive "colleagues-in-training" approach in which students are mentored and supported as they progress through their graduate programs.

Mentorship programs, like our own "Graduate Student Career Mentoring Program," are being introduced to address these expectations and are helping to change our academic culture.

How Can You Help?

Whether you are a supervisor, a chair, or even a peer, there are steps that you can take to ensure that you are helping to shift the culture around graduate student mental health. These include:

  • Practice clear communication
  • Respect your students as junior colleagues
  • Be familiar with university guidelines and procedures (so that you can help explain them to your grad student and can guide them towards help when needed, whether that's with their research, their need for student services, etc.)
  • Understand and demonstrate the need to balance priorities, including those separate from academic pursuits
  • Encourage and facilitate your student to broadening or sustain their social supports (for example, participating in community events and activities, allocating time to attend to personal relationships)
  • Make it clear that you value the student's decisions
  • Provide constructive and timely feedback
  • Offer ongoing encouragement and support

We want our students to leave feeling that they are capable, competent and successful. It is no longer acceptable to ask graduate students to simply endure their experience. It is imperative that we push back against the longstanding philosophy that graduate students are expected to endure excessive stress and high levels of distress. Together, we can improve the mental health and wellness of our graduate students and our future academy.

Robin Everall - Associate Dean (Graduate Student Mental Health), Faculty of Graduate Studies & Research

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Dr. Robin Everall is an associate dean in the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research. From her home department in Educational Psychology, she moved into the Office of the Dean of Students where she was Associate Dean and then Interim Dean until July, 2016. Her portfolio in FGSR includes assisting departments, faculties and graduate students with academic issues and more specifically, with responsibility for addressing graduate student mental health and wellness.