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Graduate students face challenges for mental health at elite universities

Graduate students at elite schools face challenges related to mental health.

Graduate students at elite universities are "disproportionately likely" to experience mental health issues, according to The Atlantic, referencing a study by Harvard-affiliated researchers.

The study found that 18 percent of approximately 500 doctoral candidates surveyed at eight institutions—including Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale, but not Duke—suffered from anxiety and depression, which is more than three times the national average. 

"Graduate study can become stressful for a variety of reasons—the long process of writing a Ph.D. dissertation, the compact timetable of a master's program, or the challenges of adjusting to a new culture as an international student, just to name a few," wrote John Zhu, senior public affairs officer and communications strategist for Duke's Graduate School.

The results of the study also indicated that approximately one in 10 students reported "suicidal thoughts on at least several days within the prior two weeks," according to The Atlantic article.

Danielle Oakley, director of Duke's Counseling and Psychological Services, said that graduate schools in particular need to be more aware of how they impact their students’ mental health. She said that counseling services need to change the way they interact with graduate students to ensure better mental health outcomes.

“At Duke, CAPS has a formal partnership with the graduate school to provide specific programming to the graduate students,” Oakley said. “I have graduate students on a council who will share information about how their needs are different from undergraduates.”

The experience of being in graduate school "exacerbated, if not caused" students' mental health problems, The Atlantic noted, since they face the combination of financial, professional and academic pressures. 

The Harvard study found that approximately 50 percent of student participants with anxiety or depression were "diagnosed sometime after starting their graduate studies," according to The Atlantic.

Oakley attributed the rates of graduate student mental health issues to the multiple stressors they experience. Examples of these stressors may include having children, being international students far from home, living on minimal stipends or working in situations where they can be exploited by their superiors.

Recently, CAPS expanded their hours on Tuesday evenings—now staying open until 7:00pm—to accommodate graduate students who are not available during regular hours, Oakley said.

CAPS prioritizes going to events that graduate students, especially students of color and other marginalized groups, are attending, she added.

“Part of our mission is to attend those events so students can interact with us in an informal way,” Oakley said. “Going to events that are being hosted for them is a way for us to form relationships for when they want to reach out.”

To engage the general graduate student population, CAPS has organized presentations to discuss mental health issues and encourage a culture of openness, Oakley explained.

Claire Ravenscroft, Ph.D. student in the English department, said in an email to The Chronicle that challenges stem from an academic culture that pushes for production, pay challenges during school and the worries of job security after graduation.

“No one should be expected to pull full-time hours in a lab they’re only getting paid part-time wages to work for, but lots of grad students are expected to and are expected not to complain,” Ravenscroft wrote. “When you combine severe financial precarity with a work culture that normalizes and even prizes high levels of stress, it can be incredibly toxic and difficult, even for people whose mental health has been relatively stable in the past.”

Zhu explained the ways that the Graduate School has approached students' mental health challenges. 

"Student wellbeing has long been an area of focus for The Graduate School," he wrote. "We tackle this issue in a number of ways, such as increasing awareness of wellness resources and encouraging students to use them, providing robust student support in a variety of areas, working to build a strong culture of mentoring and forging close collaborations with CAPS and other services so we can connect students with the help they need."  

Oakley said that the mental health challenges that students face today were also an issue when she was in graduate school. The University can improve graduate students' mental wellbeing by by emphasizing a culture of support rather than competition, she added, but it will require an investment by administrators and students alike.

“[CAPS is] often the last to see a student," Oakley said. "It’s their faculty members, their peers, their family who interact with them. Every person on the campus has to be educated on how to recognize [and] respond to a student in stress.” 


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