Grad School’s Mental Health Crisis

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July 18, 2018
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Originally published: Grad School’s Mental Health Crisis By David A. Tomar

There’s a mental health crisis in America’s graduate schools, and you know what isn’t helping? That old cliché where the professor says, “Look to your left. Look to your right. One of these students won’t be there a the end of the semester.”

Maybe professors don’t still use that old line, but it’s implied. The truth is, you won’t get a lot of help, sympathy, or emotional support in graduate school. That’s just how things are. It’s the “school of hard knocks” philosophy. The work is tough and there’s a mountain of it. The sacrifices are considerable, and you must make them for a long time, possibly even long after you graduate.

It really does have to be this way.

It isn’t easy to master a subject, and if the subject is worth learning, it shouldn’t be easy. And it most certainly shouldn’t be easy to scale the highest reaches in your profession. All that work, time, and sacrifice are essential if you expect to rise to that next level of understanding, authority, and qualification.

But that doesn’t mean it must be soul-crushing, does it?

We explore that question by first considering why grad schools are facing a mental health crisis and consequently considering what can be done about it.

Before we proceed, if you are a student who is facing anxiety or depression, consult a mental health professional on campus, through your school, or through your personal support and health network. If you are having suicidal thoughts or feelings, or are otherwise in immediate crisis, call the National Graduate Student Crisis Line right away:

  • 1-800-472-3457 (1-800-GRAD-HLP)

Don’t wait to get help!

For a better understanding of the problem and tips on what you can do to protect your own health or help others, read on:

A Growing Concern

An alarming study in Nature Biotechnology from March 2018 found that 39% of surveyed grad students suffered from depression, as opposed to roughly 6% of the general population.

America’s grad schools are teeming with overworked, underpaid, and socially isolated go-getters. But this is not a distinctly American phenomenon. An article in Research Policy found, in 2017, that 32% of Belgian Ph.D. candidates were at risk of developing a psychiatric disorder, such as depression.

Grad Resources reports that graduate students are 20 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. And this problem is only gaining steam. Grad Resources also reported that the number of university students being treated for anxiety has risen by 50% in just the last five years.

These figures suggest graduate school is a major health risk factor akin to smoking cigarettes or riding a motorcycle. Of course, unlike the Surgeon General’s message on a pack of smokes or the onerous insurance rider for your motorcycle, grad school comes without health warning labels. It is simply accepted that these experiences are a natural byproduct of the taxing reality that is master’s or doctoral program.

Grad School Is Demanding

OK, so that’s not exactly news. Graduate school is hard. And academically speaking, it’s supposed to be. The higher tiers of academia are no place for slackers. But there is a line past which sacrifice in the name of academic performance can become a genuine health risk.

The study in Nature Biotechnology reported “strikingly high rates of anxiety and depression” among grad students. But it also revealed that these rates were in many cases situational. Grad students who reported suffering from anxiety and depression also tended to report a poor work-life balance.

The latter of these conditions is not especially surprising. Maybe you went to college to party and sleep late on Fridays, but not grad school. You’re all business now, and that business takes up almost all of your waking minutes. An article from the American Council on Science and Health notes that students in high-demand subjects like the hard-sciences, law, and medicine will devote as many as 50, 60, even 80 hours a week to reading, studying, and schoolwork.

And because so many grad students also fulfill teaching obligations either for academic reasons, financial reasons, or both, the time left for sleep, personal care, social engagement, and relationship maintenance is scarce indeed. For many grad students, the result is a mounting sense of isolation, exhaustion, and burnout.

While this may seem a natural tradeoff based on everything you’ve been told about graduate school, evidence suggests it shouldn’t be. Grad Resources says that 50% of Ph.D. candidates will ultimately drop out before completion. This figure alone suggests the instinct to study yourself into oblivion is not a sustainable strategy.

Grad Students Are Poor

The cash-strapped, Ramen-noodle-slurping grad student is a well-worn archetype, even a punch line. It’s so familiar, in fact, that we give little reflection to its emotional impact. The isolation many grad students feel simply as a consequence of their workload and responsibilities is only compounded by an absence of outside financial support.

Whereas undergraduate students are significantly more likely to earn third-party scholarships and have help from their parents, the majority of graduate students are truly on their own. According to CNN Money, 60% of grad students are working through school without scholarships, grants or tuition waivers. Most are paying for grad school through a combination of loans, savings, and personal income.

In that survey by CNN Money, the average student reported to roughly $24,812 in expenses for one year, with loans covering only half that amount. But this figure could go much higher for certain career tracks, with medical and law students reporting expenses over $30,000.

For those students working to make up the difference with personal income, colleges and universities offer myriad working opportunities. In fact, they’re eager to do so because financially desperate graduate students come at a great discount relative to college professors.

GlassDoor says the average graduate student makes a shade under $30K a year, but it also seems to draw its numbers almost entirely from vaunted private universities like Yale, Harvard, MIT and Princeton. This doesn’t likely reflect the enormous number of teaching assistant programs available to grad students that pay $20,000 or less a year. Of course, no matter how you crunch these numbers, most grad students lack financial breathing room, and many are legitimately surviving below the poverty line.

The economic strains for many graduate students don’t just make life difficult and stressful. They can cast real doubt on the likelihood of fully financing one’s education or effectively repaying its cost upon graduation. Both conditions threaten the likelihood of completion.

Grad Students Lack Support

It’s not just a dearth of financial support that differentiates life for graduate students. Grad school represents a major life transition, with a whole lot of uncertainty ahead. In that respect, it mirrors the first day of college. But that’s where the commonalities end.

As a grad student, you’re less likely to have the comprehensive orientation programming, friendly dorm ice-breakers, Thursday-night frat parties, intramural sports, roll-out-of-bed-at-eleven-skip-class-and-go-to-the-dining-hall attitude, and all that other stuff that helps you adjust to life in college. You won’t have the camaraderie of an entire freshman class with the same greenness and trepidation.

Again, there’s that feeling of isolation. But it may also be a feeling that you have no real support. For the rocky transition from high school to college, campuses offer counseling, writing labs, academic guidance, and tutors. One of the distinguishing features of graduate school is the distressing independence of it all. Grad school comes with perhaps even greater transitional demands, but with far less of the support infrastructure.

In fact, the eye-opening study in Nature Biotechnology notes that in addition to an unsatisfying work-life balance, another major determinant of depression or anxiety was the feeling of being unsupported by an academic supervisor. According to the study, more than half of grad students who reported feelings of anxiety or depression indicated that their academic supervisors represented little to no asset to their future careers. Roughly the same proportion indicated they received little actual mentorship, empathy, or academic support from supervisors.

This isn’t about coddling graduate students. It’s about giving them their money’s worth. This revealing indicator says more about grad school than just its absence of mental health support. It suggests that students may not be getting the basic academic guidance, support, or leadership that they expect, need, and quite frankly, pay for. Grad students who aren’t getting these things from their academic supervisors are getting a raw deal.

And when you consider the investment, slogging through your grad studies to the indifference of a well-compensated professor is indeed a depressing prospect.

What Can Grad Schools Do?

So, the bad news: mental illness is rippling through academia, impacting the best and brightest students the hardest. But the good news is that much of this crisis is situational. Scant empirical evidence suggests that people who choose to attend graduate school are more predisposed to anxiety and depression than people who don’t. More likely, most of the risk factors are embedded in the experience of grad school itself.

While that isn’t a heartening sentiment if you’re starting your grad school studies, it does mean that ways exist to address some of the root causes for this crisis:

Prescreening and Education

Determining whether individual students entering into grad school are predisposed to mental health issues is essential. For all the academic screening and character assessment that goes into the admissions and orientation process, it seems reasonable that a screening for mental illness should be a part of this process as well.

Most grad students are given ample warning of the workload, the stress, the competition, and other factors that contribute to rampant anxiety and depression. However, admissions and orientation should also be an opportunity to help students identify individual risk factors, locate support resources, and develop strategies for preventing crisis as well as managing and coping with the attendant pressures of grad school.

Improve Availability and Awareness of Support Resources

As a clinical psychology professor and administrator for a suicide prevention program at the Columbia University’s New York State Psychiatric Institute, Christa Labouliere suggests the key is to ensure graduate schools realistically prepare students for the difficulty and sacrifice of the experience, and that they also provide students with access to support resources and people who can help .

Labouliere notes, “You want to make it a culture in the department to acknowledge that graduate school is hard and there are things you can do to help cope with it. Maybe then people won’t get to the point of feeling trapped.”

Train Professors and Academic Supervisors

This should also be a wake up call to grad school professors and academic supervisors. For many students struggling with depression and anxiety, your empathy could go a long way. And at the very least, your students should feel that you are personally invested in their education and their future. Otherwise, all graduate school amounts to is a lot of work and a degree. Your mentorship is the difference-maker, the extra edge your students need to rise above exhaustion, the secret weapon as your graduates create original research or venture into a career, and the role model as your students decide just how much personal health, well-being, and emotional energy to sacrifice for their studies.

Nature Biotechnology advises graduate schools better arm educators by taking the following steps:

  • Increasing awareness of mental health issues among students
  • Facilitating access to support services
  • Training supervisors to identify and properly refer struggling students
  • Encouraging academic supervisors to demonstrate proper work-life balance through personal example

What Grad Students Can Do

While it may feel like you’re in it alone, there are support resources available to you. However, like most other dimensions of graduate school, it’s entirely up to you to make use of these resources. They won’t come looking for you.


Find Support Services

Be aware of, and prepare to make the most of, the support services available on your campus. While this includes mental health services, it also considers the importance of finding support as you navigate the financial realities and academic challenges of graduate school. Struggling financially? Reach out to the financial aid department at your school and seek advice. Academically overwhelmed or feeling neglected by your supervisor? Reach out to your academic guidance office and find out if you have other options.

  • If you are struggling with feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, or other signs of mental illness, take advantage of the mental health counseling services on your campus.
  • If you are feeling overwhelmed, having suicidal thoughts or feelings, or are otherwise in crisis, get immediate help.   Call the National Graduate Student Crisis Line right away at 1-800-472-3457 (1-800-GRAD-HLP).

Don’t wait. Get the help and support you need right now.

Seek Resources and Networks

If you’re just beginning your grad school experience, explore these online portals for grad student support — academic, mental health, and otherwise:

Just connecting with others who have experienced their own grad school challenges, and gaining access to ideas and insights on managing your own challenges, can have an enormous impact. Indeed, one of the best ways to cure the isolation of graduate school is to create connections and personal support networks with others who have endured that same feeling.

Choose Wisely

This discussion is not designed to scare you away from graduate school. Whatever your ambitions, graduate school may well be the best path, perhaps even the only path, forward. But it is critical that you proceed both with a full understanding of what lies ahead, and with a clear sense of what you want, need, and desire from graduate school.

You can preempt many of the situational challenges that lead to anxiety and depression by choosing a grad school that effectively serves your needs. For instance, one of the best ways to pursue your graduate studies while protecting your work-life balance is to attend a reputable online graduate degree program. Consider:

You can also consider pursuing your doctorate degree at an online school. Many of those included in the following rankings are distinguished by their excellent academic support and outreach, features that can substantially improve your experience and your likelihood of completing your degree program. Check out the following programs:

Or, you can be part of the solution by studying psychology and joining the critical support system for struggling graduate students and others in crisis:

Graduate school can be a challenging but rewarding time in your academic life. Making your mental health a priority will help see you through it.

Alex Hanna

Alex Hanna

By day, Alex works as a technologist. By night, he runs Challenge the Storm. Suffering from depression and anxiety, himself, he dedicates every day to help one single person. Something as small as putting a smile on someone else's face may have a bigger impact than you think.

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