Graduate school professors must promote mental health

Sept. 24, 2018, 9:26 p.m.

Spoiler alert: graduate school is a trying time for many students’ mental health. So whether you are a first year master’s student or defending your Ph.D. thesis, know that you are not struggling alone.

According to a recent study, Ph.D. and master’s students are six times more likely to show moderate to severe anxiety and moderate to severe depression than the general population. Although I’m glad to have a number to reference, I don’t need a clinically validated study to confirm that graduate students live with the common side effects of graduate school — or that students receive visits from the neighbors: imposter syndrome and burnout. What we do need is a shift in the culture surrounding mental health and targeted resources. Therefore, the Graduate Student Council (GSC) is prioritizing its advocacy efforts on mental health to dismantle stigma and urge the university to support graduate student needs.

Struggling is part of the human experience and helps us develop more intimate relationships with ourselves. But the numbers from the study demonstrate that graduate students need a culture that undeniably prioritizes mental well-being. Particularly, the study suggests that work-life balance and students’ perceived relationships with their advisors are important factors for the state of their mental health. So, if we want graduate students to thrive, this cultural change requires participation from all stakeholders — including professors and administrators.

In the 2017 Stanford University Graduate Student Life Survey conducted by the GSC and the Diversity & Advocacy Committee (DAC), one-third of the 1,180 graduate students who responded to the mental health portion of the survey indicated that they were neutral or dissatisfied with their mental health. The survey reveals that the main sources of stress are academic workload, finances and the political climate. I see my sources of stress reflected in these results. (Additional sources include “micro“-aggressions, code switching, harassment and the lack of sense of belonging, which are other common stressors that students from underrepresented identities additionally experience.)

Stanford offers resources to help us navigate through challenges, such as Counseling and Psychological Services, Grant-In-Aid Funding, Confidential Support Team, Graduate Life Office, community centers, iThrive, Office of Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse, Bridge Counseling, residential community associates (CAs), funding for voluntary student organizations, etc. But according to the GSC/DAC survey, utilizing these resources can be difficult or inappropriate for certain students.

Graduate students take their social cues from their departments and laboratories. So, resources can go underutilized if departmental cultures don’t promote well-being. Hoping to quote a few professors that promoted mental health, I was surprised when friends and fellow GSC members, who represent students from all the graduate schools, could think of only one, Joseph Bankman.

The minute number of nominees further exposed the lack of professional role models across the university that promote mental well-being.

The university recognizes that departments are a potential avenue for improving graduate student mental health, as Stanford is piloting Wellness Information Network for Graduate Students (WINGS) in select departments. WINGS trains a student representative in each department to identify students at risk and point them to resources similar to the CA program. The departmental route is promising because it covers 100 percent of students, unlike CAs, and many students will feel comfortable talking to someone who can empathize with their situations. But I worry that this program will not complement what students are most lacking: professors promoting mental health.

Students of GSC and DAC are committed to improve graduate student well-being. But we need your help. We are organizing a Town Hall on mental health with administrators on October 17 from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Havana Room. We invite you to participate so that we can target problems and innovate solutions.

We hope that this piece reminds you to take care of yourself and each other. We hope that you will be patient with your journey and find the mental hygiene practices that suit you best, whether behavioral, medicinal or cognitive. We hope that professors and administrators lead cultural shifts so that students feel empowered accessing needed resources and prioritizing their mental health. As the GSC, we are committed to working for these changes and we urge and invite others to join us in rewriting our mental health narratives and realities.


  Ana María Tárano, Ph.D. Candidate ‘19, Graduate Student Council

Contact Ana María Tárano at atarano ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu

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