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As the pandemic erodes grad student mental health, academics sound the alarm

As the academic year kicks into gear, Dagny Deutchman is navigating a new role. The second-year psychology graduate student is serving as one of Montana State University’s first department-level “graduate student wellness champions”—a position in which she hopes to foster dialogue about mental health issues. “Academic culture can in some ways be pretty toxic,” she says. “Change has to come from the top down, but it also has to come from within.”

The new position comes at an opportune time, with mental health issues on the rise amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In a survey of roughly 4000 U.S.-based STEM Ph.D. students conducted from May to July, 40% reported symptoms consistent with generalized anxiety disorder and 37% with major depressive disorder—jumps of 13 and 19 percentage points, respectively, compared with 2019. “The results are very alarming,” says Krista Soria, the director for student affairs assessment at the University of Minnesota and one of the researchers who conducted the survey. “It’s really, really important for campuses to understand that their students are experiencing these things.”

Another survey conducted in June and July showed similar results: Roughly one-third of more than 3000 U.S. graduate students reported suffering moderate to severe depression or anxiety. (The team has not yet released a final report, but they shared preliminary findings with Science Careers and others.) One respondent wrote, “I have never felt so depressed, anxious, and inadequate. Each day I struggle to maintain any level of productivity.”

Even in normal times, “a Ph.D. can be extremely isolating,” says Susanna Harris, a Ph.D. microbiologist and the founder and CEO of PhD Balance, a website that provides space for mental health discussions among graduate students. These days, it’s even harder to make sure you’re getting the support you need, she says, because quarantine measures interfere with many traditional coping mechanisms—“going outside, interacting with friends, going on vacation, … going and seeing a therapist.”

There’s also an added layer of fear and uncertainty about what the future holds. Many people are “scrambling to gain control of the uncontrollable,” says Desiree Dickerson, a psychologist who specializes in helping academics. It’s natural to feel comforted by routines—such as daily work schedules—and concrete plans for the future, many of which have been upended by the pandemic. “Uncertainty breeds anxiety,” she says.

Deutchman has observed this among her peers, especially those who are closer to graduation. “A lot of them feel frustrated because they should be finishing … but that finish line is now convoluted and a little blurry,” she says. On top of that, they’re worried about future job prospects because many organizations—academic and otherwise—have instituted hiring freezes. “People who are normally pretty sunshiny are having a hard time talking about anything other than what’s really difficult for them right now.”

It’s important for academics to acknowledge the impact the pandemic is having on their mental health instead of carrying on thinking that their problems are minor and that they should be coping, Dickerson says. “We have a real tendency to put on this shiny veneer,” she says. “Unless you’ve lost a loved one, or you’ve lost your job … it’s very easy to discount what you’re experiencing because you know others have had it worse.” As a first step, she recommends giving yourself some slack if you’re not maintaining the level of productivity you’d normally expect for yourself. Otherwise, you risk going down a further spiral thinking that “you’re not cut out for this,” she says.  

Many institutions are offering mental health services remotely during the pandemic, and Dickerson and Harris both recommend tapping into those resources if they’re available. But they also acknowledge that not everyone has access to those resources—or the inclination to reach out for help. Harris, for example, says she “stalled on getting help for my mental illness early on” because she thought her struggles were just part of life as a Ph.D. student. Now, with a pandemic layered on top of the normal stresses of graduate school, it’s even more important for students to realize there’s nothing wrong with seeking help. “It’s OK not to be OK,” she says. “You’re not a bad person if you’re struggling; you’re not a bad grad student.”

Students who are members of underrepresented groups, including people of color or those who come from lower income backgrounds, are especially at risk of declining to seek help, says Diane Gooding, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, where she served on a university-wide task force in 2019 charged with improving the mental health resources available to students. “There’s a lot of prejudices and stigma associated with not only mental illness, but with mental illness treatment,” she says. On top of that, students who already suffer from feelings of marginalization may be even more hesitant to seek help. “There’s expectations about what is normative, and certainly seeking mental health assistance would not be considered [normative].” Gooding believes that it’s essential for the academic community to “destigmatize mental health challenges—to encourage people to recognize symptoms and problems before they escalate.”

For her part, Deutchman started her new role this week by sending out the first of what she hopes will be a biweekly newsletter informing graduate students in her department about mental health resources, workshops, social activities, and other events and opportunities on campus. She’s particularly interested in promoting social connections and work-life balance. “Sometimes, remembering that we know how to do art, or go on a run, or that we like to cook, is something that really just isn’t high on our priority list,” she says. “I’m trying to re-up that that should be higher because it’s better for our overall mental health.”

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