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Self-Care Critical to Graduate Student Success

March 16, 2018

Sarah Wilson

One of the headlines that ran in this week’s Inside Higher Ed was ‘Mental Health Crisis for Grad Students.’ The story summarizes findings in a recent issue of Nature Biotechnology that identifies graduate students as a higher than average at-risk group for mental health issues – most being at the doctoral level. The strenuous academic path with its ever-diminishing pool of funding coupled with the endgame of a downsized tenure pool is a recipe for an uncertain future. For diverse students, add issues of inclusion and equity to the mix, and things look even more dim.

There is early research to support the prevalence of these concerns. A 2006 publication in the Journal of College Student Development indicates that “Graduate students are particularly vulnerable to pressures related to conducting research and teaching, publishing, and finding employment, in addition to stress from the often ambiguous expectations of advisors. Multiple studies of graduate student mental health have found that financial stress was a major reason for seeking counseling,” and that “untreated mental health problems are significant contributors to graduate student drop-out. (Hyun et al., 2006)

But funding alone isn’t the answer. There are other types of assistance that are equally important to degree completion. This research also imparts that the level of mentoring, the degree of openness in a program’s administrative and social structure, and the acceptability of seeking psychological help are also considerations. (Hyun et al., 2006) And we know from experience, that women and diverse students experience the absence of these support systems even more acutely.

We also have more graduate students now with families, spouses or partners. “Because of demographic and social changes in recent decades, graduate students are more likely to have multiple familial and financial responsibilities entering graduate school than did students in the past.” (Hyun et al., 2006)

Lauren Ramsey, Society of McNair Fellows doctoral student in Family Sciences, agrees. “I think that graduate students do need self-care/wellness because graduate school is a unique experience. We are being trained to generate new ideas, and we are coming to the program with a set of skills, and expected to know things at a certain level. It can take a toll on your self-esteem, especially if your department isn't supportive. In my case, I am a mother of a 12-year-old daughter. My commitment is to her first, and being a grad student with limited money doesn't always align with being a mom. It can be very stressful. My child is my first priority, and sometimes I don't think that’s well understood.”

A scan of institutions nationwide demonstrates a growing interest in the well-being of graduate students. Medical and nursing schools, as well as the American Psychological Association, have been discussing self-care for a few years. Various Ph.D. and graduate school blogs are also publishing tips and guides. And while these issues are gaining in momentum, having an intentional co-curricular self-care program is still considered ‘unconventional.’

“Graduate students are running on fumes. I hear stories of sleep deprivation, living off Soylent, and nervous breakdowns. We need more care, and we need to be more aware of the resources available to us,” observes Katrina E. Hagelin, a graduate student in the iSchool. “Support systems are available, and accessible here but you need to actually know what exists, who you can reach out to, and where to go. I tell graduate students to get a clear support system in place when they begin their studies, and seek out help the second they feel they need it. It's really brave to get extra support, so people who do should be commended for reaching out. Being vulnerable is hard but it's worth it because it can dramatically help someone, and their studies,” they add.

Hagelin talked about their journey as a sexual assault survivor at a recent workshop through the Self-care and Wellness Series (SWS) offered by the Graduate School’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion (OGDI). There has been intentional effort to offer students safe and helpful guidance. Program topics range from health promotion and prevention, methods of self-care, stress management, advocacy, empowerment, international/cultural issues, motivation and productivity, the impostor syndrome, and dissertation support, just to name a few. OGDI also offers a #Spartners program for graduate student families, and in addition, engagement for international students who also express their own related set of needs.

All of the programs follow an integrated model using various support units on campus, coupled with experts in a particular field. The Counseling Center, the University Health Center, the School of Public Health, the Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct, C.A.R.E. To Stop Violence, and monthly listening sessions with Assistant Dean of the Graduate School Jeffrey Franke, comprise the consortium of stakeholders in this effort.

“I love the collaborative, discussion-based nature of these programs. We are all teachers, and we are all learners. We all bring our own skills and lived-experiences to the table. This is beneficial in so many ways, but when it comes to stress management, self-care, and wellness there’s an added layer of benefit. First, we learn we aren’t alone. Sure, no one’s experience is exactly like ours, but we learn that others have also experienced a range of emotions as it relates to navigating graduate student life. Second, we learn about techniques others have tried - and sometimes, that is precisely the formula we need for addressing our own feelings of stress,” observes Sarah Wilson, a regular SWS presenter from the University Health Center

But Lauren Ramsey cautions us to be more thoughtful and deliberate. “I think while self-care, and wellness programs are helpful, we need to address the systemic issues that impact the non-traditional student, and their ability to matriculate successfully. We also need more mental health resources. I wanted to see a therapist one-on-one, but it took a long time to get an appointment.”  

Christopher Pérez, Associate Director of OGDI, encourages students like Ramsey to continue advocating for what they need. “Graduate student perspectives inform what we plan each summer for the upcoming academic year. Most of the current programming was developed from student input, and activism,” says Pérez. “Based on feedback I receive on health equity, wellness, self-care, mental health, and safety, from graduate students, administrators, campus partners, and faculty alike, OGDI builds out more of these kinds of programming to serve our graduate student populations,” he adds.

It is also important to be proactive from an institutional standpoint. “We are looking for indicators of issues sooner - such as changes in GPA, and/or frequent leaves of absence,” says Assistant Dean Jeffrey Franke. “It is critical to listen to students at the same time as training faculty and staff in our graduate programs. In a sense, we need to take a holistic approach to the graduate student experience, from the time they are admitted to degree completion, and really look at what collective efforts ensure that students succeed here.” 

 “We all need self-care, and self-care is going to look different for different people. This also means we probably need self-care for different reasons,” says Wilson. “One of the trends I have been tracking recently is the drive to be productive and busy. I want to be clear- neither of these things are bad. Being busy and productive can be healthy parts of our everyday lives and our professional careers. That said, sometimes busyness comes at the expense of our well-being. I think sometimes there is a pressure to do as much as the people around us. If others are working on their writing, we should keep working on our writing. If someone picks up an extra class, maybe we should too. The reality, though? We don’t actually know the full extent of people’s workload. It’s not always about meeting or beating the workloads of others. It’s about finding our own personal harmony. One of the important pieces of this is found in self-care. Though it will look different for all of us, it’s something we all should consider. At its core, self-care is about taking a break and recharging, and research tells us taking a break will actually make us more productive in the long run,” she adds.

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Hyun, J. K. & Quinn, B. C. & Madon, T. & Lustig, S. "Graduate Student Mental Health: Needs Assessment and Utilization of Counseling Services." Journal of College Student Development, vol. 47 no. 3, 2006, pp. 247-266.

(By Anna De Cheke Qualls)

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University of Maryland

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