Infographic via the Berkeley Science Review
Almost six months ago, I published a post on my experience with depression in academia. I was really blown away by the thoughtful and supportive responses that I received from so many people both within and outside of the academy. Since then, I’ve had a number of really good conversations about what departments, faculty, and grad students can do to better support students’ mental health. Here are some of the suggestions that really stood out to me.
What everyone can do
The first step for staff, faculty, and students is to familiarize themselves with the facts about mental health on campus. Nearly 40% of grad students across multiple countries say they’ve recently experienced moderate to severe depression. However, with appropriate support, people facing mental health challenges can still do excellent research and finish their doctoral programs in a timely manner. It’s important to challenge the narrative that grad students with mental health problems aren’t suited for academia, which is an ableist view that shuts a lot of smart people out from the system.
Second, check out the mental health resources that are available at your campus. These may include counseling provided through your university health center; mental health advocacy groups; or online resources, like Berkeley’s free, downloadable guide on Promoting Student Mental Health.
Third, I can’t overemphasize how important it is to remove some of the stigma from mental health issues by discussing them openly. Before and during the time I experienced depression, I knew very little about mental health on campus. I thought I was the only person in my department who was struggling, and I was afraid to admit that things seemed to be going deeply wrong. But once I began opening up to people about it, I found that a significant proportion of my PhD classmates had experienced similar issues, and had often significantly benefited from therapy or medication. I might have pursued treatment much earlier if I’d had any idea how typical my experience was, and how many options were available to help me feel better. Starting the conversation early, even if you and all the people you know seem to feel all right at the moment, is a really important step.
What departments can do
Departmental staff are already the unsung heroes of academia: the people who help you navigate your class schedule, submit your grant applications, and answer all your questions about graduate requirements. They also have an important role to play in connecting students and faculty to mental health resources.
It’s really important to begin discussing mental health issues openly from the beginning of grad students’ careers. Doing a module on common mental health challenges, and the resources available on campus, during orientation for new students would be a great way to start this conversation. This information could also be shared with current students every year, since everyone could use the occasional reminder that mental health issues are normal and there are lots of ways to seek support.
If you find that you’re struggling with your mental health as a grad student, but you’re concerned about discussing this with your faculty advisor, you can reach out in confidentiality to the graduate student advisor on staff in your department. They can help you connect to mental health resources on campus, change a challenging workload, or think through funding options if you need some time away from campus.
What faculty can do
One of the comments I got on my depression post aptly pointed out that graduate students aren’t the only people dealing with mental health problems. The demanding teaching, research, and administrative responsibilities of academia — not to mention structural problems like racism and sexism — mean that faculty are also vulnerable to depression and anxiety. I’ve since updated the earlier post to acknowledge this important point. If you’re a faculty member concerned about your own mental health, definitely check out the suggestions for graduate students below.
The heavy workload of a professor, not to mention the additional toll of family responsibilities and one’s own potential mental health challenges, may leave faculty feeling that they don’t have the time to follow up on students’ mental health. However, there are some fairly quick things that faculty can do to support their students.
First, it’s useful for faculty to introduce mental health as an acceptable topic of discussion. During a meeting with a new student, you could say something like this: “I know that grad school puts people under a lot of pressure, and many students end up dealing with challenges like depression or anxiety. That’s pretty common, and doesn’t mean that you’re failing as a student. If you’re ever feeling like that, you can always talk to me about it. I can help you connect to other mental health resources around campus.” Most students probably won’t take faculty up on this, but it’s important to let them know that if they do end up facing mental health challenges, they don’t need to fear being punished for discussing it.
Second, take the time to briefly check in with students about their work-life balance during the course of the academic year. If you notice that a student seems to be struggling to complete their work or meet their deadlines, send them a quick email emphasizing that they’re not in trouble, and asking them if they’re doing all right or would like to talk. Again, a faculty member’s role here isn’t to serve as a therapist. But reaching out to them in this way and offering to connect them to other mental health resources on campus could be an easy way to encourage someone to seek the help they need.
Third, advocate for policies that reduce some of the structural stresses faced by graduate students. Many of these are financial: you can ask your department to index stipends for inflation or the cost of housing, or ask them to pay out conference travel grants up front, rather than requiring students to pay out of pocket and get reimbursed. Other issues are related to discrimination: you can support the creation of working groups for women or people of color in the department, or encourage the department to name an equality chair who can support students and faculty who have faced discrimination. Students who are less stressed about money or discrimination have more bandwidth to do excellent academic work.
What graduate students can do
Let’s say you’re a first year grad student. You’re feeling excited about your proposed research idea, but also a bit overwhelmed by the amount of work you’ve got ahead of you. What are some steps you can take to support your own mental health and that of your classmates during the years of study ahead?
Start by taking the time to do periodic check-ins with yourself about your mental health. Almost everyone feels stressed by work and deadlines and career prospects at various points during grad school, and that’s not inherently problematic. However, it is important to be aware of whether you’re feeling manageable stress, or whether you’re experiencing a more persistent mental health problem.
I’ve found that the most reliable way for me to figure out if I’m having a bad period of mental health is to look at patterns in my behavior. If you look at how you feel, you might just brush it off: “I’m stressed and miserable, but everyone in my cohort sounds stressed and miserable about exams right now, so I shouldn’t complain about it.” If you look at other circumstances in your life, things might seem all right: “I’m in a great program and have a nice place to live, and that means that I don’t have any reason to feel sad.” But it’s harder to deny what’s happening if you’re looking at repeated patterns of behavior: “That’s the second time this week that I’ve skipped class because I couldn’t get out of bed. I don’t remember myself acting like this before.”
You can use the same strategies to engage with your classmates about their mental health. If you notice that someone is acting out of the ordinary — say, missing class or ignoring deadlines — it’s worth sending them a quick message about it. You can note that you’ve seen a pattern of behavior that concerned you a bit, and ask if there’s anything they’re feeling stressed about, or would like to talk about. Of course, your classmate may say that everything is fine. But in my experience, it’s easy to brush off an email that says, “Hey, where were you in class today?” It’s not so easy to ignore an email saying, “Hey, I’ve noticed that you’ve been away from class a lot this month and didn’t turn in that last paper. Is everything all right?” No student is responsible for someone else’s mental health, of course. But it’s worth taking the time to check in on each other — you never know when it may give someone the opening that they need to start thinking seriously about their mental health.
If you do notice these types of patterns in your behavior or that of a classmate, that’s a good sign that you or the classmate might need additional support. This could take a variety of forms. Walking up to a counselor at the university health center and declaring that you feel depressed might feel liberating, or it might feel like it’s a bridge too far at first. You don’t have to do this right away (or ever) if you don’t feel comfortable doing so. A good place to start is simply by taking stock. Talk with a friend, or write a journal entry, or do something else that lets you think about how you’ve been behaving recently. What patterns do you notice? Do they seem to be correlated with something else in your life, like financial stresses, or struggling in a class?
Sometimes you can figure out the proximate source of anxiety or depression on your own, and try to make the necessary changes in your life, like dropping a class. For other issues, like financial challenges or systemic discrimination, you might not be able to solve the underlying problems by yourself. Or you may feel that you’re miserable even though everything else seems fine. Those are good moments to seek outside help. Talk to a counselor at your health center, and tell them about the behavior changes that you’ve noticed. It’s totally normal to admit to feeling confused and scared, and to feel like you don’t know what to do next. Counselors are around to help you work through these feelings and figure out possible solutions.
If you’re concerned about the cost of therapy, even with insurance, there are several options you could pursue. Many therapists will offer a sliding scale of fees for clients in financial distress. If your university has a psychology department, you may be able to get free counseling provided by graduate students as part of their clinical experience. This article has more suggestions for accessing therapy when you can’t afford to pay much. Also, if you’re struggling to figure out what types of therapy your US insurance covers, which may feel opaque at the best of times and nearly impossible if you’re depressed, ask a friend or family member if they can support you in this. You don’t have to do everything on your own.
If you are feeling depressed or anxious to the point where you have a difficult time carrying out daily responsibilities or meeting your professional obligations, you should seriously consider discussing this with your faculty advisor. Advisors vary, of course, and not all of them will be supportive, so you will have to make this decision on your own. But if the alternative is falling behind on your work with no explanation, that may also have lasting reputational costs. In general, it’s better to be transparent about the fact that you’re facing health issues. This is the #1 thing that I wish I had done differently when I was depressed. Once I did speak with my advisor about my health after almost three years of serious depression, he responded with understanding and support, and worked with me to shift my dissertation project to something that I could complete given the constraints I was facing.
Depending on how seriously your mental health challenges are affecting your life, you may find it useful to take a medical leave of absence, so that you can pursue treatment and not have to worry about your work for a while. Talk to the graduate student advisor in your department about how this might work. It may feel really hard to take this step, but mental health problems are real health problems, and there’s absolutely no shame about needing time away from work to deal with them.
The good news is that depression and anxiety aren’t permanent. Therapy and antidepressants have both been shown to be effective at helping people cope with these issues. I’ve found regular journaling to be incredibly useful. Recovery does take time — anywhere from weeks to years, depending on your situation — but it’s absolutely possible to become more healthy and get yourself professionally back on track.