Mental Health Crisis Among Graduate Students Makes Academia Unsustainable

Guest Post By Alex Mauro, 2020-2021 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Biology and the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology at Colorado State University

“Within crisis, are the seeds of opportunity”

—Marilyn Monroe

As vaccinations continue to increase across the country, society seems singularly focused on its plan to “return to normal.” But in many instances the old status quo should not be the goal. The pandemic has taken so much, but it has also given us a rare opportunity to pause, reflect, and consider what parts of “normal” we should keep and what parts we should change. As a graduate student, I would like to use this space to bring attention to an issue in my community that needs to be addressed as institutions of higher education plan for Fall semester 2021. It is an issue that has worsened during the pandemic and one in which a return to the pre-pandemic normal should not be the goal.

Graduate student mental health was a problem long before COVID-19. Studies from 2018-2019 found that graduate students were anywhere from three to six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the general population. The pandemic has exacerbated this crisis as studies have found depression and anxiety among graduate students may have as much as doubled during the pandemic. And like with many other systemic problems, graduate students from historically underrepresented groups are suffering from this mental health crisis disproportionately more than their peers. Going back to “normal” levels of graduate student mental health should not be part of the plan for Fall ’21. Rather, academia should view Fall ’21 as a chance to begin to fix a long-standing institutional problem for the sake of graduate students and for the sake of academic institutions themselves.

Graduate students are the “bedrock” of academia. Or to go from a geological analogy to an ecological one, graduate students are the primary producers of the academic ecosystem. Like plants that turn the energy of the sun into usable energy for the rest of the food web, graduate students are often the ones that turn the ultimate source of all research—ideas—into something tangible that can then be used by the rest of the inhabitants of academia (and society). Take away the primary producers from any ecosystem and the system collapses. And this analogy does not even touch on the inexpensive mentoring and teaching services that graduate students provide. Academia is simply not sustainable without a healthy graduate student population and that population was not healthy even before the pandemic. If the sheer human element of this crisis is not enough to convince administrators in higher education that institutional change is needed, hopefully the data presented, and this argument will.

What are some possible solutions to this problem? First off, I recommend readers refer to the different sources linked in the paragraphs above for key details. But, at a broad-level I will summarize some of the key solutions presented in those sources here. Solution 1) Recognize the crisis. Mental health is still ultimately taboo, and it can be especially challenging to discuss in a work-hard culture like academia. Discussions of mental health need to be normalized and encouraged. Professors can directly address mental health in their labs and class syllabi. Solution 2) Prevention. Universities can make stress-reduction workshops, counseling, and other mental health resources more easily accessible and more prevalent so mental health can be managed before it is a crisis. Solution 3) Continue to provide remote counseling services. Not only will this improve the accessibility of these services, but this will also make these services more inclusive. Solution 4) Inclusivity.  Universities need to offer resources that reflect the needs of all students so students of all identities can receive meaningful help. This can start by making sure a diversity of voices are heard during discussions surrounding mental health. Solution 5) Advocate. Graduate students need to continue to make their voices heard and ask their institutions for change. People higher-up in the academic food web (professors, administrators) need to listen to graduate students and use their positions of power to advocate on their behalf. Importantly, I want to emphasize that at Colorado State University many mental health resources are already available to students. I thank and applaud CSU for its commitment to student mental health but ask the university to continue to improve and expand the mental health resources available to its students.

As articles on the “lessons” of the pandemic begin to proliferate, let us within the academic ecosystem make one of our lessons be that the mental health of graduate students needs to improve upon pre-pandemic levels. We cannot simply go back to “normal.” Lastly, I focused this post on graduate student mental health because I am a graduate student and I know many who will read this post are involved with academia. However, the pandemic has illuminated a lack of mental health support in just about every facet of society. I urge all of us, academic and non-academic, to support the improvement of mental health resources in all aspects of society.

It is okay to not be okay. If you or someone you know is a current Colorado State student and is in need of mental health support, there are already resources in place that can help. If you are or someone you know is in a mental health crisis, seek out help.

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