Background


Discussion of post-secondary mental health often focuses on undergraduates and overlooks graduate students. Yet, there is evidence suggesting challenges related to mental health are also a growing issue within the graduate student population. For example, in a sample of about 2,300 graduate students (including 26 countries and 234 institutions), graduate students were more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general national population.[1]Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature biotechnology, 36(3), 282. In the United States, findings from the 2019 National College Health Assessment (NCHA) suggested that, of approximately 13,000 graduate and professional school student participants, 64 per cent rated their overall level of stress in the past 12 months as “more than average” or “tremendous.”[2]National College Health Assessment (2019). Retrieved from here.

The table below indicates responses for what students found to be traumatic in the past 12 months:

Within the last 12 months, any of the following been traumatic or very difficult to handle:

Percent % Male Female Total
Academics 38.2 48.9 45.6
Career-related issue 34.3 39.2 37.7
Death of family member or friend 10.5 15.5 13.9
Family problems 18.3 29.2 25.8
Intimate relationships 25.8 29.4 28.5
Other social relationships 17.6 22.8 25.1
Finances 25.6 35.1 32.1
Health problems of family member or partner 13.7 21.9 19.3
Personal appearance 14.4 23.7 20.9
Personal health issue 15.4 23.6 21.1
Sleep difficulties 24.8 30.7 29.1
Other 6.3 8.6 8.2
Students reporting none of the above 33.7 20.9 25.1
Students reporting only one of the above 13.5 12.4 12.7
Students reporting 2 of the above 13.5 13.0 13.0
Students reporting 3 of the above 39.2 53.7 49.2

 

NOTE: Male and female categories used in the survey are binary and do not capture the range of identities participants have.

A study using the NCHA Canadian reference group data found significant differences between 1,461 graduate/professional students with mental health conditions and 3,291 graduate/ professional students without mental health conditions. Specifically, participants with mental health conditions reported experiencing higher levels of stress and more impediments to academic performance.[3]3 Clarke, K. (2019). An Investigation of the Experiences of Graduate Students with a Mental Health Condition (Doctoral dissertation).

Social isolation, apprehension about career opportunities, higher than normal levels of depression, and anxiety have all been identified as contributing to graduate student distress. Conflict- laden adviser/advisee relationships, in particular, have been identified as a major source of chronic distress, as the graduate student is acutely aware of the power differential and potential threats to their academic career. Factoring in the demanding work loads of teaching, undertaking research, coursework and constant evaluation by supervisors, it should come as no surprise these compounding and multiple sources of stress can lead to, are associated with and often exacerbate mental health challenges.

The graduate student population constitutes a highly-diverse demographic and thus requires a multidimensional approach oriented to academic and cultural supports in addition to the more traditional psychological services model. Psychological and professional services, while necessary, are not sufficient to meet the needs of graduate students who comprise a diverse group in age, background, experience and cultures. For the most part, graduate students are adults who have an array of life responsibilities including financial commitments, work, parental and family demands. The conversation about graduate student mental health is being framed predominantly within the context of academic support provided to, and specifically targeted for, graduate students. These factor prominently in mental health discussions, surveys and initiatives across North American campuses and, as such, university communities are being challenged to go beyond simply raising awareness to focusing on the beneficial behaviours that foster mental health in an adult population.

Graduate students rely on their supervisors for research and financial support and career guidance. Not surprisingly, supervisory relationships are highlighted as being critical to all aspects of the graduate student experience and an emphasis toward improving supervisor/supervisee interactions is gaining momentum.[4]Chiappetta-Swanson, C., & Watt, S. (2011). Good practice in supervision and mentoring of postgraduate students: It takes an academy to raise a scholar. Hamilton, Ontario: McMaster University. Of course, quality mentoring is a skill that can be developed with support for faculty members. Mentorship programs are being introduced to address these expectations in a changing academic culture. These include clear communication, being respectful of students as ‘junior colleagues,’ and recognizing that academic pursuits, while important, are one aspect of life graduate students are trying to juggle. In addition to overseeing their students’ research, faculty members (and particularly supervisors) are expected to be familiar with university guidelines and procedures, facilitate professional development opportunities, value the students’ decisions, understand the need to balance priorities, provide constructive and timely feedback, and provide ongoing encouragement and support. Graduate students turn to their supervisors for support that obviously falls outside the realm of providing counselling and psychiatric services on campus.[5]Patel, N. H. (2015). Undergraduate internship program structures for effective postgraduation employability: A case study of a mass media arts internship program.

References   [ + ]

1. Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature biotechnology, 36(3), 282.
2. National College Health Assessment (2019). Retrieved from here.
3. 3 Clarke, K. (2019). An Investigation of the Experiences of Graduate Students with a Mental Health Condition (Doctoral dissertation).
4. Chiappetta-Swanson, C., & Watt, S. (2011). Good practice in supervision and mentoring of postgraduate students: It takes an academy to raise a scholar. Hamilton, Ontario: McMaster University.
5. Patel, N. H. (2015). Undergraduate internship program structures for effective postgraduation employability: A case study of a mass media arts internship program.
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