The Status of Mental Health Research in Graduate Student Populations

Katie writes about the status of research on academia’s understudied but highly vulnerable population: graduate students.

It’s no surprise that students in higher education are at risk of mental health issues. But as more and more evidence has come to light suggesting that mental health issues are on the rise among college students, professional organizations, such as the American Psychological Association and the American Council on Education, have begun collaborating with university administrators to respond to this growing issue.

There is also an increase in general awareness among academic administrators of the value of institutional counseling centers and disability support services. These support services routinely work with students with mental health challenges to determine and implement reasonable academic accommodations.

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A black and white photograph of a university campus filled with students walking.

But although these efforts represent an important step in the right direction, they often fail to directly address the mental health needs of graduate students. In fact, most of the research studies surrounding higher education and mental health either only focus on undergraduate students or fail to distinguish between undergraduate and graduate student samples. This failure to attend to graduate student mental health is problematic for several reasons, but let’s address the two main points here:

First, graduate students face a number of stressors unique to academia, such as the pressure to publish, difficulties in their relationships with their advisors, the challenge of securing sufficient funding, and the intense competition of the academic job market — all of which can contribute to the development of mental health problems or exacerbate existing symptoms.

Second, given that graduate programs tend to be less structured than undergraduate programs, it’s not always clear what reasonable accommodations might look like for those with mental health challenges. This kind of ambiguity often prevents graduate students with mental health issues from receiving the support they need, further contributing to their sense of hopelessness and frustration.

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A row of old papers sit bound together with twine on a library shelf, tagged with descriptions of their contents.

Here are some key findings from the limited existing literature on graduate student mental health and suggestions for future research that will have an important impact on the well-being of graduate students.

  • In 2005, a study found that more than half of the graduate and professional students at University of California, Berkeley reported feeling depressed a lot of the time (1). Another large survey conducted at Berkeley in 2015 indicated that 47% of the Ph.D. students surveyed reported elevated depressive symptoms, with the highest rates observed among those in arts and humanities (2). Both studies identified financial stress, difficulties in advisor relationships, career prospects, and academic challenges as major predictors of depressive symptoms.
  • In a 10-year longitudinal study of suicides across 12 colleges, students over the age of 25 were at elevated risk for suicide in comparison with younger students (3). One large study revealed that 4% of graduate students reported seriously considering suicide and 0.3% had attempted suicide in the past 12 months (4).
  • Graduate students from under-represented backgrounds might face additional challenges, which can adversely impact their mental health. A survey of medical students across 5 universities indicated that many racial/ethnic minority students reported prejudice, discrimination, feelings of isolation, and different cultural expectations as important sources of psychological distress (5). Furthermore, both racial/ethnic minority and international students were less likely to seek counseling services than their White, American peers (1), indicating the need for special mental health outreach efforts geared towards these populations.

*          *         *

Considered together, these studies provide evidence for the prevalence of mental health concerns among graduate students and illuminate some of the unique stressors faced by this population.

These few findings also highlight the need for additional research on this largely under-studied topic. In particular, where some studies have identified individual-level factors such as regular contact with family and friends and self-care practices as potential buffers against the negative impact of stress on graduate student mental health (1, 2, 6), little is known about how institutions and departments can better support graduate student mental health through programs and policies.

We also don’t have a clear picture of the experiences of graduate students who live with chronic mental health conditions. For example, how does the graduate school experience affect their symptoms? What kind of academic accommodations might be most helpful?

Finally, the experiences of graduate students from certain under-represented backgrounds, such as those who identify as LGBTQ and those with disabilities, remain largely unexamined. It is critical for researchers to identify the unique challenges faced by these groups as they navigate the graduate school environment, so that the needs of these highly vulnerable populations can be adequately addressed in counseling and other mental health promotion services.

The Academic Mental Health Collective represents our team’s efforts in addressing some of these questions through a collection of personal insights and perspectives. We hope that higher education researchers will join our efforts by continuing to collect empirical data to better address the mental health needs of graduate students.

 

References  

  1. Hyun, J. K., Quinn, B. C., Madon, T., & Lustig, S. (2006). Graduate student mental health: Needs assessment and utilization of counseling services. Journal of College Student Development, 47, 247-266.
  2. Jaschik, S. (2015). Berkeley study finds high levels of depression among graduate students. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/04/22/berkeley-study-finds-high-levels-depression-among-graduate-students
  3. Silverman, M. M., Meyer, P. M., Sloane, F., Raffel, M., & Pratt, D. M. (1997). The Big Ten Student Suicide Study: A 10-year study of suicides on Midwestern university campuses. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 27, 285-303.
  4. Drum, D. J., Brownson, C., Burton Denmark, A., & Smith, S. E. (2009). New data on the nature of suicidal crises in college students: Shifting the paradigm. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 40, 213.
  5. Dyrbye, L. N., Thomas, M. R., Eacker, A., Harper, W., Massie, F. S., Power, D. V., … & Shanafelt, T. D. (2007). Race, ethnicity, and medical student well-being in the United States. Archives of Internal Medicine, 167(, 2103-2109.
  6. Myers, S. B., Sweeney, A. C., Popick, V., Wesley, K., Bordfeld, A., & Fingerhut, R. (2012). Self-care practices and perceived stress levels among psychology graduate students. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 6(1), 55.
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