A deadly academic machine

May 17, 2019, 7:00 p.m.

Attending graduate school represents one of the most significant (and often scariest) leaps in one’s professional career. It’s an opportunity to move to a new place and learn from the brightest minds in our fields, to satisfy a thirst for knowledge and push ourselves to our academic limits. For many students, Stanford is the epitome of that calling. After all, who wouldn’t want to work at a place that boasts 17 Nobel Laureates among its current faculty? A place surrounded by more job opportunities than one could ever dream of? For me, Hoover Tower seemed like a shining beacon in the distance calling me to my academic home. When I received my acceptance to Stanford, I felt like I was headed to the perfect school.

Yet for all its virtues, Stanford suffers from many of the problems that plague universities across the country. One of the most pressing among them is graduate student mental health. It is, without question, a national crisis. Multiple research groups have found rates of depression among graduate students as high as 46 percent and rates of anxiety as high as 41 percent. The signs of this epidemic are all around us in Stanford’s graduate student community. Students often wait weeks for an appointment at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) due to a backlog of appointments. Stanford’s Duck Syndrome and the “culture of misery” are consistent topics of conversation among students, who criticize and perpetuate the culture in equal measure. The “Stanford University Places I’ve Cried” group on Facebook has garnered dozens of posts from undergrad and grad students alike discussing their lowest and most vulnerable moments at the university.

About a month ago, The Daily broke a news story about a suspected suicide in a laboratory in the Engineering Quad. The individual was a graduate student in an engineering program. As someone who nearly ended their life in a very similar way, I felt my heart break into a million pieces. I was lucky to have someone who prevented me from following through on my plan. It made me me think of the thousands of other graduate students on campus and wonder how many were also at a breaking point. When I read that yet another graduate student passed away in their residence hall, I knew that we were only hearing about the tip of the iceberg. When you combine the academic pressures of Stanford with the food insecurity and the struggle for affordable healthcare that too many grad students face, it’s no wonder that a deadly mental health crisis has emerged among the graduate community.

What is it about Stanford that perpetuates a culture of misery? How it this culture of misery unique for graduate students? The answer to that question will be different for every person who sets foot on this campus. For me, there was the prestige of Stanford itself. These halls have produced some of the finest minds in the world. To think that I would have the honor to follow in their footsteps was both inspiring and terrifying. When I arrived here, I immediately felt the pressure to achieve: the pressure to spin off a new startup or “disrupt” a new space, the pressure to please academics who I’ve looked up to my whole life and the pressure of only having four more years to get on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list. I was surrounded by brilliant students who were shooting for the stars, and I wasn’t sure if I could make it.

Depression and anxiety had reared their heads at other times in my life, but Stanford fed the fire. I had to leave the lab multiple times a day because I always felt that a panic attack was just around the corner. It felt like I was physically standing in water up to my neck, like an invisible force was crushing my chest and making it difficult to breathe. I would hide under the staircase in our building and cry, sometimes for seemingly no reason, only to dust myself off and get back to work. While I can’t speak for everyone’s experience, numerous opportunities to speak with my colleagues suggest that I’m not alone. When I share these painful experiences with fellow grad students, I am both comforted and saddened by how many can empathize.

Of course, it’s not all Stanford’s fault. The academic machine is famous for driving its trainees into the ground. There are many who believe that the survivors who rise from the ashes do so because they possessed the mental grit to persevere. Those who make it through the trial by fire of an intense graduate program should proudly bare their scorch marks to the world. This harsh status quo, after all, is what laid the foundation and erected the walls of our ivory towers of academia. But, we need to reevaluate that status quo. A tower built on graduate student anguish stands as an endorsement for the methods that constructed it. Perhaps it’s time to tear it down.

What should be done to address graduate student mental health? I view barriers to mental health solutions as fitting into two general categories: a lack of resources, both financial and structural, and a general stigma against seeking help. I think that the best approach to solving this problem is to attack it from multiple angles. Solutions for mental health can start at every level of influence at Stanford, from the university administration to the academic departments to the grassroots of the graduate student community.

First, we need a transparent effort to allocate financial resources toward mental health support and infrastructure. Since I arrived at Stanford in 2016, the response from CAPS regarding long wait times is consistently “a lack of resources.” Last year, Stanford raised $1.13 billion in philanthropic gifts. Stanford also has an endowment that is larger than the gross domestic product of nearly a fourth of the countries in the world. While I recognize that philanthropic gifts are often earmarked before they enter Stanford’s coffers, it is frustrating to hear Stanford brag about how much money it is pulling in without hearing about how this money will be used to address graduate student mental health.

We need every voice in the Stanford community, alumni network and beyond to raise their voices. If you are donating to Stanford, make it clear that you want your money to be used for mental health support. How much money would it take to raise CAPS clinicians’ salaries enough to promote retention? What percentage of Stanford’s net worth would it take to hire enough clinicians to reduce patient waiting times or provide longer care? When I walk through campus and look at our perfectly manicured lawns and beautiful fountains, I can’t help but wonder if those dollars could have been spent on something more impactful.

Second, the administrations of every graduate program need to take this issue as seriously as they would take an imminent threat to research funding. A major barrier to graduate mental health at Stanford is that there is no unifying drive among graduate departments to address mental health. While some students in one program may have very sympathetic program directors that are proactive about exploring mental health solutions, there is no guarantee that a student in another school will have the same experience. If you are a graduate program director, I implore you to state openly to your colleagues that this is a problem that needs to be addressed. Hold a roundtable discussion with students, with faculty, then with both. Talk about it during your retreats. Brainstorm ideas together on how to make graduate mental health within your program better. What pain points are students experiencing? Are they financial, academic or something else?

Speaking as a graduate student, it would mean the world if the faculty in my program brought up the issue of mental health. Graduate programs should be transparent with their students with what their options are regarding mental health support, including taking a leave of absence. Explicitly stating that there are standard operating procedures in place for struggling students will make students more comfortable with seeking them out. I am not naïve enough to believe that having these procedures in place will be enough to convince some advisors that taking a leave of absence or seeking routine help is not indicative of a “weak” student, but communicating them effectively will be a first step toward reforming Stanford’s graduate student culture.  

Lastly, we need to think about how we address graduate student mental health as a graduate student community. A pressing barrier to this effort is the difficulty of building community among graduate students. When I was an undergrad, I felt connected to my peers because we all shared so many common experiences. It didn’t matter what your major was — everyone took general education classes, lived in residence halls with each other, went to homecoming and participated in campus traditions. However, graduate students have a very different experience. Of course, we are all excited to come to a great school. But we are often more excited to join our specific programs and labs, and our emphasis on making connections exists in those realms. It often feels like the graduate students in other schools at Stanford might as well be at another campus — we don’t have as many natural opportunities to meet each other.

This is why it’s important for us to identify graduate mental health as an experience common to all programs and use it to unite us. For example, spaces where graduate students can come together and talk through their struggles are critical. The Graduate Student Council (GSC) has opened the conversation about graduate student mental health by bringing together administrators and students for a series of town halls on the matter. Organizations like the Student Biosciences Association (SBSA) and BioAIMS have hosted panels where graduate students talk about their struggles with mental health in graduate school. Experiences like this humanize the problem and remind ourselves that this is a crisis facing Stanford. These are our friends and colleagues, and we need to band together and commit to solving this problem as a graduate community — discussing mental health only in the context of national statistics makes the problem seem distant and nebulous. Our graduate communities are best able to come up with solutions that work for us when we are consistently getting together, talking about mental health, and identifying solutions that are equitable and mindful of intersectionality. Mental health care must work for all of us.I want action. I want concrete action. I want to see money move. I don’t want efforts to address our mental health crisis to live in executive summaries and slide decks. I want every struggling graduate student to feel like they don’t have to live in the shadows, know that their struggles are valid and believe that they deserve to be helped. I want all of this because I love this university. I love all that Stanford has taught me and the doors it has opened for me. As I prepare to leave this institution, it is my sincere hope that I leave a community that is ready to build on the momentum started by the students and staff who know that this issue is of critical importance.

Contact Francis Aguisanda at aguisanda ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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