Colleges Struggle to Respond to Graduate Students in Distress
The Chronicle of Higher Education - August 16, 2012
By Stacey Patton
Nick Repak, executive director of the nonprofit group Grad Resources, started a national crisis line for graduate students in 1999. He was prompted to act by the suicide of a Harvard Ph.D. student who felt oppressed by "abusive research supervisors."
The hundreds of graduate students who called a national crisis hotline during the first six months of this year cited a litany of day-to-day pressures that put them in distress.
Almost 750 graduate students sought help from the 24-hour National Graduate Student Crisis Line (1-800-GRAD-HLP) between January and June, according to records kept by the nonprofit group that operates the hotline.
One female caller pursuing a master's degree said that she felt disrespected by people in her department and that her adviser overloaded her with work. She said the constant negativity was breaking her down.
A male Ph.D. candidate, whose fellowship had dried up, said he was about to have a nervous breakdown because he had to juggle courses and work the night shift at a gas station to pay for school.
A third caller was suicidal. He felt isolated on his campus and was worried about getting a job. He told the counselor that "he thought about a knife in the sink but didn't go in the kitchen."
Other students who called the hotline over that six-month period shared stories about family problems, troubles with sleeping, and being sick with no health insurance. They talked about nightmarish experiences as teaching assistants, stress over do-or-die qualifying exams, failed lab experiments, never-ending dissertations, and fears about switching advisers.
Questions have been raised about how universities can best tend to the mental health of graduate students in the wake of last month's deadly attack at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. The alleged shooter, James E. Holmes, had dropped out of a Ph.D. program in neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Denver just weeks before the attack. A university psychiatrist working with Mr. Holmes had reportedly told a university threat-assessment team and a university police officer about her concerns about Mr. Holmes's behavior, and the university has now begun an internal review of its policies and actions.
"After Colorado, people have been talking about the stresses of grad school and how unfriendly it is," says Maggie Gartner, executive director of student-counseling services at Texas A&M University. "I'm now hearing a lot of talk about what we can do to prevent violence. No college or university can prevent violence. We can only reduce the risk."
Beyond the difficult questions of how to handle extreme cases, universities are grappling with how to help graduate students who struggle with their emotional health. Graduate students face a number of pressures that are distinct from the stresses that undergraduates face. And, while campus counseling services are available to both groups, graduate students often face barriers to using that help that are not as common among undergraduates.
Nick Repak, executive director of Grad Resources, a nonprofit group based in Dallas, says graduate students are at a higher risk for mental-health problems than undergraduates because they are older, and the onset of illnesses like bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia often occurs when people are in their early to mid-20s. Graduate students are also less likely than undergraduates to receive information about counseling services through face-to-face contact because they are less likely to congregate in residence halls, student centers, or their program's administrative office.
Graduate students also face many of the same academic pressures as faculty members and often have more family and financial obligations than undergraduates. At the same time, graduate students have less job security and health benefits than faculty and are often not the target audience for campus-counseling programs, in part because their numbers are smaller on campuses than undergraduates.
Allen J. Schwartz, who has been an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Rochester since 1971, says that "it's pretty much the reality that systematic surveys of grad student populations has really not been a focus in college mental health."
A Need for Crisis Care
Mr. Repak started the National Graduate Student Crisis Line in 1999 to help students adjust to the demands and life changes of graduate school. He was prompted to act by the story of Jason Altom, a Ph.D. student at Harvard University who, in 1998, committed suicide by taking potassium cyanide. A suicide note cited "abusive research supervisors" as one reason for taking his life.
"I realized that a person at that point in despair is not going to be helped by an article or a seminar on time management," Mr. Repak said. "Jason Altom's greater need was for crisis care. That's when we started the crisis hotline."
The crisis line is separate from Grad Resources and is staffed by counselors who also operate the nationally accredited Boys Town National Hotline.
Of the calls that came into the crisis line between January and June, close to two-thirds were from women and just over one-third were from men. One in 10 of the callers said they were having thoughts about suicide. Mr. Repak says that students have called the crisis line in the midst of suicide attempts, and that having someone to talk to during an impulsive moment helped save their lives.
Most graduate students have major concerns about their school-life balance, getting a job, financial pressures, and their stress levels, Mr. Repak says. But many don't seek help.
"It is often difficult for students who are accustomed to performing at high levels to seek help for emotional problems for fear of showing weakness and because there's a perception that stress is a normal part of graduate school," he says.
Grad Resources surveyed 578 graduate students at 26 universities last year. When they need support, 68 percent of those students said they turn to their "inner self." Only 8 percent said they turned to professors, and just 3 percent turned to counselors.
Patricia Mooney-Melvin, associate dean of the graduate school at Loyola University-Chicago, has been working with graduate students since 1981. She says she has seen improvements.
"Faculty and administrators are more sensitive about mental-health issues," she says. "These days people talk about mental health more openly. It used to be taboo to talk about these issues in graduate school."
But she and others say that faculty are still sometimes unprepared or unwilling to be front-line counselors for students in distress.
Another problem is that large universities with clinical-psychology programs train graduate students to work with students in campus counseling centers, raising graduate students' concerns about privacy. "The idea that they might be seen by another graduate student who works at the counseling center keeps students away," Ms. Mooney-Melvin says.
Improving Help for Students
Before the Colorado shooting incident, the Council of Graduate Schools had already been working with graduate-school deans to identify steps that administrators, faculty, and students can take to help respond to students in crisis. And some schools have already put programs in place.
Yale University, for example, has a student-run wellness program that promotes student fitness as a way to help stressed out students. Some schools hold social and cultural events to support ethnic minorities, women, international students, and students with children. Many schools hold workshops to help students with thesis and dissertation writing as well as stress management, perfectionism, sleep, and procrastination.
Many campuses have seen regular and growing use of counseling services by graduate students as officials have done more to reach out to those students through newsletters, e-mails, Web sites, handbooks, podcasts, and brochures.
At Texas A&M, Ms. Gartner says, the university is doing "proactive programming." Faculty and teaching assistants receive mandatory training on how to identify and respond to disturbed students. And the university prints a help-line phone number on the back of student ID cards.
But counselors and graduate deans say improvements are still needed. Graduate students often lack good mental-health coverage. And campus counseling services could be improved by offering later hours of operation and walk-in clinics in off-campus locations more convenient for graduate students. Some say graduate students might be helped if they had more than one faculty adviser, giving them contact with more professors and more frequent feedback.
Despite improvements in student mental-health awareness, especially since the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, universities are struggling to improve how they help graduate students, partly because graduate students are a poorly studied group on campuses.
"We are seeing an inordinate number of graduate students coming to campus already in crisis," Ms. Gartner says. They include students who "are suicidal and psychotic," she says. Counseling centers are also seeing more international students in distress, and it's harder to help these students because of cultural differences. Like native-born ethnic minorities, international students are less likely to seek out help because of the stigmas associated with mental illness.
Ms. Gartner says the rise in troubled graduate students in crisis is hard to explain. "We all have theories about why, but we don't have facts."
Percent of Graduate Students Reporting Issue as a "Major Concern"
|Reaching an acceptable balance between school and life outside of school||59|
|Not being successful in your career||56|
|The financial pressures of being in graduate school||54|
|Stress or burnout||53|
|Failing to meet the expectations others have of you||43|
|Choosing the wrong career path||38|
|Not completing your degree||37|
|Your relationships with your professors||32|
|Your relationship with your peers||27|
|Feeling like an outsider, or that you do not belong||24|
|Growing your relationship with God or a higher power||24|
Resource “Frequently” When in Need of Support or Insight
|Approach or Resource
|God or a higher power||34|