CAPS struggles to serve diverse graduate community

Feb. 27, 2013, 12:09 a.m.

The diverse range of mental health issues experienced by graduate students has complicated efforts by the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) to serve the graduate community, according to graduate students.

Graduate students account for 40 percent of visits to CAPS counselors in 2011, though 31 percent of those using CAPS services declined to state their affiliation. The 1,054 graduate students who visited CAPS in 2011 make up 11.9 percent of the total graduate student population.

Wendy Ni M.S. ’12 Ph.D. ’17, the Graduate Student Council’s health advocate, said that the graduate community faces mental health struggles that are markedly different from those of the undergraduate community.

(MICHAEL LIU/The Stanford Daily)
(MICHAEL LIU/The Stanford Daily)

“We’re very, very diverse,” Ni said.

Ni cited the spread of graduate students across various degree levels and schools, as well the large international contingent, as complicating factors.

“They have different pressures, different plans, different challenges,” Ni said. “And we’re, in a way, decentralized.”

According to Ni, the current lack of a centralized feedback system for graduate students has hindered efforts to address graduate students’ mental well-being issues.

“As a whole I find it very difficult to know what overwhelming issues there are from graduate students,” Ni said.

However, she identified two challenges common among graduate students—obtaining funding and research positions—as contributing to mental health struggles.

In an effort to address those issues, the office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education has put on several workshops for graduate students. One such workshop, titled “How to Feel as Bright and Capable as They Think You Are,” addressed the issue of imposter syndrome, in which high-achieving students believe they are frauds and that their success is simply a fluke.

In addition to professional help, Ni said that student organizations and cultural groups within the graduate community provide graduate students with the kind of support they might not find elsewhere.

Even so, CAPS does offer a variety of resources to help struggling graduate students increase mental well-being and stay on top of their work, according to CAPS administrators.

Ron Albucher, director of CAPS, noted the presence of counseling staff at the Graduate Community Center two days a week—with tailored help for doctoral candidates who are struggling with procrastination—and increased outreach at the School of Engineering during qualifying exams.

Issues surrounding stigma from certain cultural groups within the international graduate community also play a role in addressing mental health issues, Albucher said.

“There are issues ranging from language, religion and ethnic backgrounds that play a role in the willingness to utilize CAPS services or potential shame or even acknowledgment of mental illness itself,” Albucher said.

Ni said she has talked with CAPS regarding ways to improve mental health outreach to the graduate community through CAPS’ resources.

The Bridge Peer Counseling Center has also worked on devising new ways to meet the needs of the graduate community.

“We do a big campaign in the beginning of winter quarter where we hand out giveaways with the Bridge number on it and we’ve talked about doing that in Rains and Munger and other graduate residences so that they know we’re there,” said Emily Cohodes ’13, a course coordinator at the Bridge.

According to Cohodes, many graduate students are simply unaware of the Bridge’s offerings, with only about five percent of calls received by the Bridge coming from graduate students.

“We often get contacted by grad students to see if they are able to come to us, which they absolutely are,” Cohodes said.

Cohodes also mentioned that the Bridge requires counselors to undergo training that includes how to respond to the specific needs of the graduate community. Some of these specific needs include stress over qualifying exams and marriage issues.

“We realize that this is sort of an untapped community that we’re not really reaching out to sufficiently and that’s definitely something that we’re focusing on in our outreach campaign,” Cohodes said.

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