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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.

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Reverse Town Hall

What is a Reverse Town Hall?

The Reverse Town Hall is a space for students to share their experiences, concerns, and voices during the global pandemic. It is a venue to witness our shared struggle and stand in solidarity with each other. It is an opportunity to dismantle the power dynamics of a traditional town hall. Instead of a small group of administrators informing students of events to come and fielding carefully selected questions, students stand in solidarity and share the lived realities associated with administrative decisions. This is also a space to imagine how higher education institutions can respond to the crisis in ethical ways.

Why is this event happening?

Despite both graduate and undergraduate students using every forum possible to call for specific actions from the university to best protect us, the UConn administration has actively pushed us aside. As long as the administration and the Board of Trustees have final say, town halls and other similar forums will be spaces in which UConn leadership can pay us lip-service without any real accountability or shared decision-making. The recent decisions around budget cuts, reopening in the fall, and how to respond to racist violence are emblematic of this issue. We must work towards ending the economic, racial, and gender violence that plagues our university. Therefore, we call for a new system of shared governance. Let us dare to reimagine a university that is truly oriented towards equity and justice.

How can I get involved?

UConn graduate and undergraduate students interested in sharing a testimonial or statement during the event can complete this form: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSedu76lNedAufoQQ_Kc2FbeqJ0L1HhU-1tR6aNVhl_XlNs3AA/viewform?usp=sf_link

How can I attend?

All members of the UConn community are invited to join us on July 14, 2:00-3:30pm at the YouTube live-stream link: https://youtu.be/Lsx1fYyisZc