Today’s graduate students are facing multiple stressors that require thoughtful and comprehensive attention.
Those are the findings from a new report from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and The Jed Foundation (JED), which provides a framework for individual and collective action to support the mental health and well-being of master’s and doctoral students.
“Supporting Graduate Student Mental Health and Well-being: Evidence-Informed Recommendations for the Graduate Community” is the result of a 22-month project that began prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unquestionably the pandemic has led to additional stress and impact to mental health, which is taken into consideration.
“We were already knowing there were rising concerns about graduate student mental health and well-being,” said Dr. Suzanne Ortega, president of CGS. “What we rapidly learned is that COVID, the police killings, the anti-Blackness waves have really amplified the stress that people were feeling.”
Information was collected from graduate deans, graduate students, student affairs professionals, disciplinary society representatives and researchers. The CGS/JED researchers developed a questionnaire about institutional practices and policies related to supporting graduate student mental health and well-being.
The final questionnaire was sent to 780 U.S. and Canadian CGS members or affiliates during the spring and summer of 2020 and 241 valid responses (31%) were received. Public institutions made up 72% of the respondents and 11% were from U.S. minority-serving institutions.
Ortega said the most direct way to address stresses specifically felt by graduate students of color is to provide open and honest space to discuss the challenges and to respond quickly to situations that may intensify their stress levels and impact mental health.
“There are so many levels at which racism and anti-Blackness and structured inequality occur that senior administrators and faculty mentors really need to be attentive to the many different ways individuals are affected—overt acts of racism, microaggressions,” said Ortega. “I’ve been particularly touched to hear students talk about the impact of color invisibility, this notion that faculty and programs are trying hard to be colorblind and how that is not an acknowledgment of the experience and the richness and the contribution a person brings to the program.”
The report presents both a framework for action and offers specific recommendations for senior administration, deans, program directors, department chairs, graduate faculty and graduate students.
Project team member Dr. Nance Roy, chief clinical officer of JED, said it was important to include information about and recommendations for the different stakeholders in graduate education, adding that it was also crucial to recognize the needs of traditionally marginalized groups, including Black, Latinx, first-gen, LGBTQ and students with intersectional identities.
“Many schools do not include in their overall strategic plan for the institution, a focus on mental health,” said Roy. The report, she said, calls for identifying mental health in the strategic plan, which will be the guide for allocation of resources.
“We have tried to frame the report with a sense of urgency around the need to do two things: (1) respond to students in extreme distress…and (2) prevention. How are we going to create healthier environments that reduce the hyper-competitiveness and unneeded stress?,” asked Ortega.
Among the recommendations for presidents, provosts and other senior leaders is examining ways to lessen hyper-competitive campus cultures, while prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion and creating campus spaces where graduate students can openly discuss challenges and crises.
The report recommends that graduate deans incorporate training in mental health and well-being for new faculty and program directors, and allocate funding for wellness days and mental health campaigns.
The report encourages graduate faculty to be clear about expectations for students, which should include recognizing the need for self-care.
“We need to be mindful of not putting the burden of responsibility solely on graduate students,” said Roy. “We absolutely need their voice in order to have effective programs or policies or advocacy events, but we can’t expect them to do all the work.”
Ortega hopes this report will begin conversations and facilitate action toward optimizing graduate student performance while also alleviating unproductive stress. She said leaders and thinkers, including funding agencies, should explore ways to measure the contributions of scholarship and science as not only the body of knowledge in a field, but rather the capacity to bring about change or solve systemic problems.
“There’s always going to be some level of competition, which is probably a healthy thing,” said Ortega. “What is not healthy is the kind of competition that makes it all for me and none for you. That gives no opportunity to share ideas, imagine things differently together and collaborate.”
As of the report’s publication the graduate deans at over 150 institutions have endorsed the principles and committed to concrete action over the next academic year.
“I hope each [stakeholder] finds one practical thing that they see they can do and begin the process of talking, formulating, planning and acting on it,” said Ortega. “We’ve tried very deliberately to create ideas that will be transformative, but that are not so ambitious that you get overwhelmed.”