Student Representative Column

Pursuing PhDs: The toll of graduate education on mental health

Anxiety and depression are not uncommon among graduate students: Here are some strategies that may help.
By Amy L. Stamates, MS

Previous research on students' mental health and its contributing factors has largely focused on undergraduate students. However, a recent study1 examined clinical rates of anxiety and depression in 2,279 PhD and master's students and found that graduate students are approximately six times more likely to experience anxiety and depression as compared to the general population. Specifically, Evans et al. (2018) 1 found that 39 percent of their graduate student subject pool scored in the moderate-to-severe depression range, and similar rates were found for levels of anxiety (41 percent). These findings are not surprising given that graduate students report high levels of stress and burnout, fear of failure and financial strain2. So, what can you do if you are struggling? First, know that you are not alone. Many students feel similarly, and many of your professors have struggled as well. Second, understand the risk and protective factors linked to mental health, particularly for those in academic settings. Outlined below are some concerns in this area of research as well as strategies to help.

Imposter syndrome. Have you ever felt like you don't belong in graduate school? That pesky feeling of inadequacy and incompetency is known as imposter syndrome3, and it's common in academia. Further, imposter syndrome has been linked to greater levels of anxiety4 and thus is relevant for graduate student mental health. Andrea Robinson wrote a fantastic article in Div. 28's Nov. 2017 newsletter for early career professionals, but many of her points can be useful for students5. Remember to own your successes and celebrate your milestones, even small ones (e.g., submitting your first publication).

Work-life balance. I know what you're thinking, Is work-life balance in graduate school even possible? The answer is yes. However, it is challenging, takes practice and may not always be consistent, especially if there are approaching deadlines. For a typical week in graduate school, make sure that you set and stick to your working hours and write down your goals for that week. Time management is essential to achieving work-life balance. Ask yourself, At what point of the day am I most productive? If you write your best work in the morning, protect that time for writing. Use other times throughout the day to do less involved tasks (e.g., answering emails). Make sure that you take time for yourself, whether that be a 20-minute walk or watching one episode of your favorite Netflix show. Also, learn how and when to say no6.

Stress management and self-care. The most important responsibility that you have as a graduate student is to take care of yourself, and we are not told that enough. Self-care means engaging in behaviors that promote physical and emotional well-being, which includes factors such as sleep, exercise, use of social support and mindfulness practices. These practices are associated with lower perceived stress among psychology graduate students7. Unchecked stress can lead to burnout, so take care of yourself. Prioritize work-life balance, unplug from technology for some time each day and talk to your advisor or a trusted faculty member if you are feeling overwhelmed.

Utilize campus resources. Much of this section is contingent on your university's campus resources. Check with your department and graduate school to see what graduate student services that they offer. Are there professional development workshops on stress management and work-life balance? Are there graduate student social support groups? Are there counseling services for graduate students? If your graduate school does not provide these services, perhaps discuss developing a committee devoted to these issues. Remember, you are not alone, and many students will benefit from a systematic change. If your mental health is causing distress in your life, prioritize yourself and discuss accommodations or your program's leave of absence policies with your mentor/department chair.

References

1Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., et al. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education.  Nature Biotechnology36, 282-284.

2Boren, J. P. (2013). Co-rumination partially mediates the relationship between social support and emotional exhaustion among graduate students. Communication Quarterly, 61, 253-267.

3Clance , P.R., & Imes, S.A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.  Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15, 241-247.

4 Kumar, S., & Jagacinski, C. M. (2006). Imposters have goals too: The imposter phenomenon and its relationship to achievement goal theory.  Personality and Individual Differences40, 147-157.

5Robinson, A. (2017, November). Overcoming imposter syndrome: How to stop feeling like a fraud. Retrieved from: https://www.apadivisions.org/division-28/publications/newsletters/psychopharmacology/2017/11/imposter-syndrome.aspx.

6Clay, R. (2013, November). Just say no: Graduate students are bombarded with "shoulds". When and how do you say no? Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/say-no.aspx.

7Myers, S. B., Sweeney, A. C., Popick, V., et al. (2012). Self-care practices and perceived stress levels among psychology graduate students. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 6, 55-66.

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