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Promoting Graduate Student Mental Health: The Role of Student Affairs Professionals and Faculty

Health, Safety, and Well-being Wellness and Health Promotion Faculty Graduate
January 22, 2020 Michael J. Stebleton Lisa Kaler

JCC Connexions, Vol. 6, No. 1. Feb. 2020

New Spaces & Roles for Student Affairs: An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

A Critical Issue

The mental health of graduate students represents a critical issue across college and university campuses. While scholarly and public attention in the previous decade focused on the growing mental health diagnoses influencing undergraduate students, including the rise of anxiety and depression among college students, recent studies demonstrate that graduate students also experience mental health challenges and mental illness at concerning levels.These issues influence students’ trajectories through their graduate programs—and beyond, with many students reporting growing anxieties regarding career uncertainties.Increasingly, research demonstrates the need for higher education professionals, including student affairs practitioners and faculty, to recognize their powerful influence on the overall wellbeing of advisees and graduate student employees. Student affairs professionals and faculty members and others in the academic community must begin to take a more active role in addressing the mental health crisis among graduate students.

In my (Michael) last blog post I wrote about undergraduate mental health and the need to build communities of care to address these challenges. In this post, my co-lead author Lisa Kaler and I focus on graduate student mental health and the need for student affairs professionals and faculty members to take on active roles.

Recent Studies on Graduate Student Mental Health

In a recent global study of graduate students published by Nature, more than a third of Ph.D. students reported seeking help for anxiety or depression.Students reported a range of defeating behaviors and interactions that contribute to poor mental health. For example, 21% of respondents said they had personally experienced harassment or discrimination, and the same number reported experiencing bullying. Faculty members, advisers, and/or supervisors engaged in many of these harmful behaviors. The recent suicide death of a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student, John Brady, represents a tragic and extreme example of what can happen due to an abusive faculty-student relationship.

Additionally, many of the students in the Nature survey reported heightened insecurity about uncertain futures, including the ability to find employment in academia. Only 26% of respondents believed that that their Ph.D. would substantially or dramatically improve their job outlook. Students encountered these uncertainties along with the inherent challenges of graduate study; nearly 40% of respondents said that they were unsatisfied with their work-life balance, including concerns about financial aid, expenses, and lack of funding.

Current Demographics

The results from the Nature study are not an isolated snapshot of graduate student mental health. National survey data from the American College Health Association (ACHA) demonstrates the prevalence of mental health issues and mental illness among graduate students. In the spring of 2019, graduate students reported experiencing the following issues during the previous twelve months:

  •        24% of students reported that stress had negatively influenced their academics.
  •        41% of students felt so depressed it was difficult to function.
  •        46% of students reported that academics had been traumatic or very difficult to handle.
  •        58% of students reported feeling very lonely.
  •        63% of students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety.

What is the role of faculty, administrators, and student affairs practitioners in addressing this problem? We contend that faculty members and student affairs practitioners, in particular, can actively take steps to address the mental health concerns of graduate students.

Addressing Graduate Student Mental Health Concerns

While some faculty and higher education professionals may question their role in supporting graduate student mental health, we argue that faculty members, staff, and administrators have a moral and ethical responsibility to support graduate and professional students at all levels. Mental health should not remain siloed in campus counseling centers or even in student affairs divisions. For some graduate students, their interactions with student affairs professionals may be limited—or not exist. Supporting students and promoting their mental health need not require faculty to attempt to engage in therapy or counseling beyond their level of training or expertise. Rather, they can practice empathy, increase awareness of mental health resources and their mental health literacy, actively foster career development for graduate students, and take steps to facilitate culture change in their departments.

A Call to Action

Our call to action aligns with other scholars who have advocated for culture change and more intentional collective efforts around mental health issues to support our graduate student population. To achieve this cultural change, we suggest simple, yet effective strategies. We offer four strategies towards building and extending communities of care focused on addressing mental health needs for graduate students.

Listen and inquire: Most faculty members and graduate students engage in a relentless pace in order to meet academic and professional goals. Slowing down occasionally to check in with graduate students in the classroom, the lab, or during research meetings can be an effective way to monitor how students are doing. Faculty and graduate student working relationships would be enhanced by improving interpersonal relationships, and we argue that this would ultimately improve scholarly output and mental health.

Cultivate departmental climates supportive of mental health: Many scholars and practitioners encourage faculty and student affairs professionals to develop greater awareness about mental health resources on campus. This is important, but we assert that faculty and student affairs staff should create climates where students feel comfortable discussing mental health, before the issues become exacerbated to the extent that they need professional intervention. At the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, faculty and student affairs practitioners (e.g., career counselors, academic advisors, and directors of multicultural centers, among others) can volunteer to become trained mental health advocates. These advocates receive additional training in awareness of campus resources and making referrals. Importantly, they also learn how to implement strategies to promote mental health in their departments; their role is to help promote wellbeing within their own departmental culture.

Extend partnerships with campus career centers: Graduate students, student affairs staff, and faculty often remain unaware of career development resources on campus. Many students face anxiety about their future work opportunities, including those who might pursue tenure-track positions: Concerns around the increasing “giggification” of the academy and pressures to publish as graduate students may contribute to these anxieties. Other students struggle with the realization that they might need to consider non-academic careers. When acknowledging that many graduate students hold concerns about career uncertainty (which can lead to increased anxiety and/or depression), it makes sense for faculty to work with other partners, such as career development services, to ameliorate these concerns. Collaboration in the form of workshops, class visits, and/or events serve as important opportunities for connection, and faculty members can assume lead roles in fostering these partnerships.

Embed specific programs into departmental structure to influence culture change positively:  Graduate students in the Higher Education program at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities recently started a mental health initiative called Thrive. This program, co-led by one of the authors of this post (Lisa), includes a comprehensive, departmental-wide survey of graduate students’ mental health concerns and contributing factors. The student-led initiative—working in partnership with faculty and administration—plans to collect qualitative data to gain a better overall understanding of departmental culture and climate. A specific inquiry focuses on the needs of marginalized student populations in this diverse graduate department. Ultimately, the Thrive team hopes to develop a departmental climate where both faculty and students feel comfortable discussing mental health issues, and where the departmental policies and practices facilitate positive mental health. Faculty members and student affairs practitioners at other institutions can encourage graduate students to advocate for their wellbeing and urge administration to undertake similar efforts, recognizing that not all departments currently have climates where graduate students can exercise this degree of agency.

Need for Collaborative Efforts

Efforts to support graduate student mental health concerns need to be thoughtful, intentional, and collaborative. Inevitably, progress will be slow and incremental. Yet, it is vitally important that faculty members join administrators and student affairs staff from across campus to address this growing concern in academia. Faculty play an important role in supporting graduate students, and thoughtful partnerships with student affairs professionals can enhance the graduate student experience. When mental health truly becomes “everybody’s business,” real change can result to support our graduate student population.

Author Note

The authors would like to thank colleague Jesse Lewis for his thoughtful consultation on this piece, and his collaboration as the co-leader of Thrive.  Both authors contributed equally to this blog post. Correspondence regarding this blog article can be addressed to: Michael J. Stebleton, Coordinator Higher Education Program, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities; email:  steb0004@umn.edu


American College Health Association (2019). American College Health Association-national college health assessment II: Graduate and professional student executive summary spring 2019. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association.  https://dev.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-II_SPRING_2019_GRADUATE_AND_PROFESSIONAL_REFERENCE_GROUP_EXECUTIVE_SUMMARY.pdf

Evans, T.M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J.B., Weiss, L.T., & Vanderford, N.L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36, 282-284. https://doi: 10.1038/nbt.4089

Kezar, A.J., DePaola, T., & Scott, D.T. (2019). The Gig Academy: Mapping labor in the neoliberal university. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wedemeyer-Strombel, K.R. (2019, Aug. 27). Why we need to talk more about mental health in graduate school. Chronicle of Higher Educationhttps://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-We-Need-to-Talk-More-About/247002

Woolston, C. (2019, Nov. 14). PhD poll reveals fear and joy, contentment and anguish. Nature, 575, 403-406.