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Changing the Culture: University, Faculty and Graduate Student Responsibility to Prioritize Student Mental Health

Mental health is important for success in higher education, yet many graduate students struggle with the maintenance of their well-being. An eye-opening 2018 study shows that graduate students are six times more likely to experience anxiety and depression than the general population. This study also noted gender disparities with over 55 percent of transgender graduate students reporting experiences with anxiety and depression compared to approximately 42 percent of women and about 34 percent of men. The pressure from publishing, performing academically and navigating the graduate degree process in often antagonistic environments can interact to adversely affect graduate students’ mental health. Additionally, students of color face added challenges in higher education including racism and microaggressions that can negatively affect their mental health.

Ulyssa HesterUlyssa Hester

Given the prevalence of mental health issues in graduate school, it is imperative to re-evaluate how the culture in higher education supports graduate students’ well-being as a high priority. While there are more visible campaigns for mental health awareness on college campuses, there remains a stigma around having mental health issues and receiving help. Students are often apprehensive to discuss their mental health related issues or be seen receiving professional help. Despite university programming that encourages students to take care of themselves and maintain a good work-life balance, students often forgo sleep, eating well-balanced and healthy meals and engaging in meaningful co-curricular activities in exchange for labor, data, papers, and praise from committee members along the path to a graduate degree. As a result, graduate students are being burned out and leaving their programs at disturbing rates.

In order to change the graduate culture of self-neglect, institutions must adopt more appropriate strategies to support their graduate students. University programming on self-care is not effective if graduate advisers, committee members and department administrators do not support self-care through their words and actions. Faculty and staff can support graduate student self-care using approaches such as discouraging heavy workloads that require students to work long days and nights, and disrupting the culture of normalized self-neglect that results in a lack of sleep and days off. Faculty and staff can also build mentoring relationships with students, thereby better positioning themselves to notice when students are undergoing a decline in their mental health.

Furthermore, universities should invest in training their faculty, staff and students on how to not only recognize the signs of a decline in a student’s mental health, but how to broach the conversation with students when they recognize signs of distress. Creating a culture of caring, checking in on students and letting them know where and how to take advantage of the university’s resources could be quite beneficial to graduate students’ mental health.

Dr. Levon T. EstersDr. Levon T. Esters

Regarding university resources, universities could be better prepared to assist students who are seeking counseling services for their mental health issues. Counseling services at many universities are understaffed relative to the size of the student body, especially for Black and Latinx students searching for counselors within their racial group. For example, a 2017 report by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) on 621 counseling centers indicated that 38 percent of centers had a client waitlist, and the average wait for a first appointment was 17.3 business days. Additionally, the clinical staff of all counseling centers surveyed was 70 percent White, while only 11 percent were Black and 7 percent were Latinx. Moreover, the percentage of centers that reported they employed no Black or Latinx staff were 54 percent and 71 percent, respectively. Given the aforementioned statistics, it is important to acknowledge that there is a higher tendency for Black and Latinx students to use the universities’ counseling services when there are more Black and Latinx counselors. Finally, the AUCCCD found that 73 percent of all clinical staff were women, but 98 percent of all centers employed no transgender clinical staff. Universities should hire more gender and racially diverse counselors to ensure that students seeking counselors who identify with them have this option.

Graduate students who are dealing with mental health issues may practice employing their agency by considering the following recommendations:

  1. Seek professional help early. Schedule an appointment when you first start experiencing symptoms and early in the semester. More students will seek appointments as the semester progresses, making it harder to get an appointment when you need it later in the semester. Be mindful that the average number of days to wait for a first appointment was reported by the AUCCCD to range from 5 to 48 days.
  2. Seek identity affirming spaces for your own cultural, professional/academic, and other personal identities. These spaces not only help inoculate you from impostor syndrome and stereotype threat (especially for minority students), they can be uplifting and encouraging.
  3. Lean on key support systems. Find at least two to three reliable people to count on when it gets rough. It is important to have multiple people to turn to for support, whether it be for academic needs or an encouraging shoulder on which to lean.
  4. Release the guilt associated with taking care of yourself. In the high-pressure environment of higher academia, it is easy to feel guilty for taking time off. Remember that time off is needed to function well and be successful in graduate school.
  5. Be mindful of how thin you spread yourself. Keep in mind the amount of time you have available versus the commitments you have, and learn to say no accordingly (even to your adviser). Adopting this practice will help keep you from becoming overwhelmed and reflects good time management skills.

The cultural shift towards increased awareness regarding mental health needs to continue towards effective actions that support students’ well-being as a high priority in graduate school. Universities are challenged to facilitate this cultural shift by offering training for faculty and students, hiring more underrepresented minority counselors, and setting expectations for a culture of caring and support. Faculty should help change the culture in academia by not perpetuating a culture of self-neglect, and instead support students in taking care of their mental well-being. Finally, to fellow graduate students I offer my last recommendation: Always remember we are our biggest advocate. We are never powerless.

Ulyssa Hester is a doctoral student in the Department of Agricultural Sciences Education and Communication at Purdue University. Ulyssa’s research interests include the creation of inclusive campus culture at Historically White Institutions with an emphasis on racial, ethnic and gender minority student experiences. You can follow her on Twitter @Ulychirp.

Dr. Levon T. Esters is an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Sciences Education and Communication at Purdue University. Levon’s research focuses on the STEM career development of students of color, mentoring of women and graduate students of color in STEM and the role of historically Black land grant institutions in fostering the STEM success of women and students of color. You can follow him on Twitter @Levon_Esters.

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