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Graduate Student Mental Health: A Deepening Crisis during a Global Pandemic

During the past few months, each person in our university community has been affected deeply. However, some of us, including graduate students, are more deeply affected than others because of the material conditions of our lives and relationship to the university. Research shows that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population. High rates of depression and anxiety are further exacerbated for women, gender non-conforming, and transgender graduate students; this is no surprise considering the pervasive environment of gender discrimination and harassment in academia. The environment of higher education institutions for racially minoritized graduate students is similarly harmful. Research also shows that racially minoritized students experience numerous types of racism within their doctoral studies, resulting in symptoms of racial trauma, such as anger, shock, self-doubt, depression, dissociation, physical pain, and spiritual pain.

Graduate school is deeply challenging, often confusing, demanding, isolating, and frequently exhausting. Graduate school is an incomparably stressful situation. The stress of financial burdens including years-worth of student loan debt, limited affordable housing options in this area, the astronomically high cost of childcare, and more, pose significant threats to our emotional and mental well-being. The risk of housing and food insecurity is significant for graduate students. The economic crisis resulting from the pandemic has only made this situation more severe, as many of us have experienced loss of additional or summer income, had a partner or family member experience job loss, or have experienced other financial strain.  However, the reality is often that graduate students aren’t provided with the necessary support to navigate the highly challenging environment of graduate school. These challenges have become even more serious during this pandemic, as graduate students have scrambled to move to an online format of being both students and instructors, have suddenly had years-long research projects stalled and disrupted, have had to complete intellectually challenging projects on seemingly empty stores of mental and emotional energy, and have often had to do so  while caring for children and other family members. 

Before this global health crisis started, we were already experiencing a graduate student mental health crisis. This a crisis that is largely driven by the structures of the university that define academic life, and that continually lead to the overwork, underappreciation, and traumatization that graduate students experience as they navigate academia. The cause of the graduate student mental health crisis is not our individual capacities and characteristics. The cause is the material, social, and economic conditions of a historically white, competitive research university. We dedicate years of our lives to research, teaching and service at this university. We want to grow and learn, to become scholars, researchers, problem-solvers, and change-makers. We want to not just survive, but to thrive as graduate students—an often-impossible feat. An intervention in the mental health crisis for graduate students must start not just with mental health care, but with creating academic programs and workplaces that are supportive, caring, and humanizing. With recognizing and addressing the trauma and harm that those who have been historically and systematically excluded from and devalued within higher education experience. With realistic and authentic career guidance. With a commitment to paying all graduate employees a livable wage, and ensuring access to affordable housing, nourishment, and childcare. With supporting us, listening to us, and taking seriously our needs during a global pandemic and economic recession. The university must take responsibility for the fact that this crisis has been created by the structures and systems of the university and to commit to supporting our basic human needs.

By ashleynrobinson

Higher Education scholar practitioner, feminist, social justice educator, and wellness advocate. Disrupting the status quo with radical love (or at least trying to).