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Op-ed: UC should offer more resources to support graduate students’ mental health

(Niveda Tennety/Assistant Photo editor)

By Jocelyn Meza

Sept. 26, 2019 11:33 p.m.

Graduate school brings transitions and professional development for students; many go to graduate school with the hopes of becoming experts in a specific field and ultimately beating the odds to become future tenure-track faculty.

Despite this, we must also acknowledge that graduate school is an extremely stressful time for many, if not most, graduate students. Graduate school oftentimes comes with feelings of isolation and inadequacy, the much-dreaded imposter syndrome and the academic pressure to “publish or perish.”

And these harsh environments have contributed to astronomical graduate school dropout rates.

Although about 50% of graduate students will drop out of their graduate program, the students that persist in graduate school do so at a very high cost to their mental health. A recent study from Nature Biotechnology reported that 39% of graduate students scored in the moderate to severe depression range, compared to only 6% of the general population using the same assessment scale. Another recent study conducted in Belgium also found that 32% of Ph.D. students are at risk of developing a mental health disorder, like depression.

Although many are referring to this as the “graduate student mental health crisis,” it is actually a longstanding issue that has been neglected for quite some time. It wasn’t until recently that researchers began to systematically document the prevalence of mental illness among graduate students. Historically, studies on student mental health – especially those at the University of California – have primarily focused on undergraduate students, with very little work focused on graduate students.

At the forefront of uncovering the mental health issues that trouble many graduate students is the UC. Fifteen years ago, UC Berkeley was among the first to measure well-being in a graduate student population. The Berkeley Graduate Student Survey in 2004 found that almost half of the graduate students had experienced an emotional or stress-related problem in the last year. In 2008, UC Irvine conducted its very own survey of graduate students’ mental health and found that 29.6% of graduate students reported having a mental health concern that impacted their well-being or academic performance; 43% reported knowing another graduate student that was affected by a mental health issue; and a striking 30% reported suicidal ideation. In 2014, UC Berkeley again conducted a large Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report and found that 47% of their Ph.D. students were depressed.

More recently, a UC systemwide survey on Graduate Student Well-Being examined the prevalence of both anxiety and depression, as well as which factors impacted graduate student mental health. In 2017, researchers reported that over one-third of students who responded had symptoms of clinical depression and over one-quarter reported feeling dissatisfied with life. Unfortunately, not much work has been done to improve graduate student mental health.

That being said, new efforts are arising, including the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge, which aims to cut the burden of depression in half by 2050, and focuses on student depression and anxiety. The Screening and Treatment for Anxiety & Depression program is an innovative online approach that allows all UCLA students, both undergraduate and graduate, to assess their symptoms and offers immediate treatment options. Although this intervention is not specifically targeted toward graduate students, it is available to them, and it is a step in the right direction.

Granted, some efforts are being made – but graduate students need more support.

So, what can UC schools do to continue supporting the mental health needs of graduate students? First, faculty mentors for graduate students should receive training on how to recognize and respond to their mental health needs.

Second, a concerted effort to create affordable mental health services for graduate students is warranted. The UC schools can model such services after already successful programs, like the mental health program for graduate students at the University of North Carolina that took a new approach by hiring full-time counselors and embedding them within programs.

Third, campuses can set a tone for self-care and balance – perhaps by adopting the Mental Health Bill of Rights and Responsibilities that was initiated at Vanderbilt University. Setting this tone can shift the current culture that praises students who work 60 to 80 hours and opt out of having personal time off. A great example that UC schools should highly consider is the Boston University holiday policy that was put forth as a way to help graduate students have a better work-life balance. In most UC schools, graduate students on a nine-month stipend (i.e. teaching assistants) are not eligible to accrue vacation or sick leave. By adopting a holiday policy like the one at Boston University, UC grad students can get time off to focus on self-care, without worrying about not getting paid.

I am not arguing that graduate school should be a walk in the park. It should be academically rigorous and challenging – but something just doesn’t feel right about working over 60 hours a week for six or more years, while getting paid below minimum wage.

But if graduate students do have to endure that, they at least shouldn’t have to worry about their mental health, too.

Meza is a Ph.D. and a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA.

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Jocelyn Meza
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