Higher Education

STUDENT VOICE: Universities overlook graduate students’ mental health

The stressors that create a "formula for a mental collapse"

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Another phone call from Lapeer County Jail meant another $25 spent and a list of to-do items to assist my family. When my little sister was re-arrested in October, I worried about what her incarceration would mean for my family’s already limited emotional and financial capacity.

They, especially my mom, were already spread thin, and I was only a few phone calls away from shattering myself. To avoid pity and unsolicited advice, I cowered. I hid in my room, often weeping in both sadness and frustration.

After being gone for eight years, I had returned home to Michigan to begin my Ph.D. Returning to Michigan meant having an opportunity to obtain a doctoral degree from a top-ranked graduate program, seeing my niece and nephews more often, and exploring my hometown. Michigan meant Detroit, and Detroit meant family and all of the pains, sadness, love, laughter and frustration that proximity brings. I knew coming home would have its challenges, but I didn’t imagine the toll it would take on my mental health.

The Ph.D. journey is challenging. It’s obscure and ambiguous. Among individuals with college-educated parents, 10 percent of college graduates enroll in a doctoral program within four years of receiving a bachelor’s degree, compared to 5 percent of first-generation college students, and of Black students who hold bachelor’s degrees, about 36 percent earn advanced degrees. With only two percent of Americans earning doctorates, the process is difficult for the average person.

If you’re a black, first-generation college student from an under-resourced community, you belong to one of the most historically underrepresented groups on campus. The academic pressures to perform well in the classroom, publish and join a promising research lab — combined with the strains of additional financial, familial and racial stressors — are a formula for a mental collapse.

Related: Universities increasingly turn to graduate programs to balance their books

When I read a 2018 study conducted by Harvard-affiliated researchers on the impact of graduate school on mental health, I found the results unsurprising. The study concluded that “graduate students are disproportionately likely to struggle with mental health issues.” The researchers found that 18 percent of the students in their sample experienced moderate or severe symptoms of depression and anxiety, which is “more than three times the national average.”

However, the researchers only surveyed students who had advanced to the candidacy stage of their programs. While it makes sense to focus the study on students further along in their programs — as they are most often grappling with the immediate stressors of job placement, program completion and publishing — these challenges also extend to graduate students earlier in their studies.

Navigating my own mental health journey has revealed both a misunderstanding of the mental health challenges that graduate students face and inadequate support to help graduate students flourish in higher education.

To manage my family stress and my anxiety, which according to the American Psychological Association impacts 61 percent of college students, I sought counseling. With the on-campus counseling center bogged down with students and limited to short-term support, I searched for off-campus counseling. According to an annual survey of counseling center directors, there is a 1,737 student-to-counseling-staff ratio at colleges and universities, signaling the need for more resources dedicated to providing adequate mental health services.

Related: In-demand graduate programs become a cash cow for colleges in financial distress

Students enter college at all stages with unique challenges — depression, anxiety and family trauma, issues that I know all too well. Traditionally, universities view these concerns as most relevant to the undergraduate experience and fail to recognize that graduate students also struggle with factors that drastically impact their mental health. Colleges must continue to improve mental health services and counseling to promote college success and wellness, and it is increasingly important that these supports extend to graduate students.

The stakes are high. Approximately one in 10 students in the Harvard survey reported having suicidal thoughts. Universities should reevaluate the surface-level support they offer graduate students and offer counseling, provided by on-campus counselors trained to affirm the diverse experiences and backgrounds of graduate students, that counters the competitive, workaholic and output-driven culture of higher education. This means incentivizing universities to place a greater emphasis on the health and well-being of students outside the classroom and dedicating more research to understanding the experiences and mental health needs of graduate students, especially those in the earlier stages of their programs.

Given that most on-campus counseling centers lack the capacity to support all students, there should also be visible, cost-effective alternatives and recommendations for students to seek support. My weekly counseling visits equip me with strategies to navigate my first year in my graduate program and a very challenging homecoming. I have been persistent and fortunate to find the support I need, but universities must do more for their graduate students.

This story about graduate students and mental health was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Aya Waller-Beya Detroit native, is currently a first-year doctoral student at the University of Michigan. She is a graduate of Georgetown University and the University of Cambridge, and a recipient of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She is also a LEDA Scholar.

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Aya Waller-Bey

Aya Waller-Bey is a Detroit native and currently a first-year doctoral student at the University of Michigan. She is a graduate of Georgetown University, and… See Archive

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