Grad Gloom: Mental Health & Grad School
Ah, February. That time of year when the winter starts to feel long…really long. The holidays are over and now it’s just the long slog toward spring. In grad school, this time of year can be especially difficult – long hours working to make up for lost time during break, grant deadlines creeping, and for many second-year students, preparation for qualifying exams. Stress can weigh heavily on students during this time of year, so it makes sense to talk a bit about mental health and grad school – what we know about student risk, how to be aware of it, and what resources are available for students.
What’s the situation? Student risk statistics
In a study done in 2013, a survey of 28,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students at 57 universities painted a stark picture of the situation. Almost 80% of graduate students reported feeling “overwhelmed” during the last 12 months, with 40% of grads reporting feeling “hopeless” during the last year and 27.2% reporting feeling depressed (1). In 2006, a report from UC found that 60% of graduate students said that they were stressed, overwhelmed, sad, hopeless, and/or depressed nearly all of the time – and one in ten students reported having suicidal thoughts (2).
Informal polls and “anecdata” show startling trends among academics and graduate students – just look at these numbers from a Twitter poll recently posted by Lauren Drogos, a postdoc at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute:
Why are these numbers so high? There are a few possible explanations. Graduate students will frequently move to new cities, away from existing support systems and friends, to join the top program or research group they plan to work with. International students have the added burden of language and cultural barriers that can make connecting in a new place difficult (3). On top of that, graduate students are expected to work long hours, get funding, and produce results. Students often find their schedules and academic success at the mercy of their advisor’s whims, and the nature of scientific research – which often involves chipping away at one tiny, specific question for years at a time – can leave students feeling disconnected from other academics and their peers. With all of that pressure, self-care and socialization can easily fall by the wayside. While being paid to go to school is fantastic, it doesn’t help that graduate stipends are low – especially as students may already be coping with undergraduate student loan debt.
Financial, work, social, and even personal stress are all potential culprits. Regardless of the cause, graduate student mental health is a serious concern. Students need to have access to resources and support systems to succeed in grad school – and if universities and graduate programs want students to be fully productive, they need to be worried about these issues too.
Conversations at UCSD Neuro
Perhaps my favorite thing about the UCSD Neuro Grad program is the care and support within our community. Mental health concerns are no exception. With the Minor Proposition looming (our program’s version of qualifying exams faced by second-year PhD students), a number of conversations have been popping up in my inbox and Twitter feeds. Recently, two senior graduate students hosted a short seminar about the resources available to UCSD graduate students seeking mental health care. One of those same students, NeuWrite’s own Maya Sapiurka, recently led a push in the UCSD Graduate Student Association to allocate surplus funding for the hiring of a campus psychologist specifically to serve graduate student needs.
Personal experience matters, too. Several students have begun to organize a “buddy system” to connect second-years working on their qualifying exams with more advanced graduate students who worked on similar projects, to give them advice and feedback on their projects. I’ve been gratified to see and participate in more conversations, both in real life and online, about individuals who have struggled with anxiety, depression, and stress. Even the perfect lab environment doesn’t make someone immune to these issues. In my own case, I sought help coping with anxiety after realizing that stress from my personal life was affecting my work.
Staying aware: signs to watch for
The stereotypes about grad school might lead students to believe that the anxiety and stress they’re feeling is “normal” – and maybe some of it is. So how can people be aware of when stress is too much?
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by “persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about everyday things” (4). Symptoms include restlessness, trouble sleeping, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. Some anxiety and worry are normal, and many people can live normally with some of these symptoms. When anxiety begins to affect life every day, that’s when it tips into GAD.
Depression often goes hand-in-hand with GAD and involves prolonged periods of sadness, hopelessness, and/or disinterest in daily life. Everyone gets “the blues” now and again, but when it begins to interfere with daily activities, it’s a cause for concern.
Panic attacks may be more recognizable than GAD and depression because of their short, intense nature. If you find yourself abruptly experiencing a pounding heart, shortness of breath, dizziness, shaking, feelings of detachment, and fear, it may be a panic attack. Sometimes people will visit the doctor or ER during a panic attack because they’ll mistake it for a heart attack.
You can learn more about each of these conditions, their symptoms, and do a self-assessment over at the Anxiety and Depression Association for America website.
Resources for students
If you or someone you love is suffering from suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or visit their website at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
There are a lot of online options to get help and access resources. MentalHealth.gov provides information about a wide variety of mental health concerns, including anxiety and depression. Active Minds is a group dedicated to raising student awareness and promoting mental health education and advocacy on college campuses, while Strength of Us is partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and tailors their content for young adults.
Sometimes all it takes is having a friend you can talk to. It can be hard to get the conversation going, and I’m grateful that it’s been happening here at UCSD. Myself and others have found Twitter to be a great space to meet other graduate students and academics, get advice, share experiences, and vent when times are tough. There are also now apps and smartphone services for reducing anxiety and keeping calm in times of stress. I like the Calm app, which includes free guided meditation exercises from 3 minutes to an hour in length. Apps like MyFitnessPal and SleepCycle are helpful if part of your goals for managing stress and anxiety include fitness tracking and getting more sleep.
If you’re a student at a University of California campus, you can visit this website for information on each UC campus’ resources and phone numbers to help you connect. If you’re a student elsewhere, check out your university’s website – most schools have resources for students and frequently can provide at least some care on campus.
If you’re a UCSD graduate student, you can visit the on-campus Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) clinic to meet with a counselor free of charge. They frequently have a wait of at least a few weeks to meet with someone, so it’s a good idea to let them know if it’s urgent so they can get you in sooner. CAPS usually does short-term work, but if you’re on the UC Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP), they can provide you with a referral to an off-campus provider, where you’ll pay a small co-pay to see someone. If you have private insurance, your CAPS counselor will work with you to coordinate continuing care.
Maybe most importantly, and the biggest goal of this blog post, is to remember that you’re not alone. Imposter Syndrome is a dangerous beast because it makes you feel like you are uniquely unqualified at your job, and can make opening up to your peers feel impossible. In reality, your fellow grad students are struggling with the same things, and they’re probably looking for someone to talk to themselves! So check in with your friends if you can. You can also contact me at alie(dot)astrocyte(at)gmail(dot)com, or find me on Twitter at @alie_astrocyte if you want to talk about grad school, stress, and anxiety, or if you just want to see pictures of my awesome cats.