An ambitious research project aims to assess the state of mental-health resources and support for graduate students. The 22-month initiative is a joint venture of the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) in Washington DC and the Jed Foundation, a non-profit organization in New York City that focuses on the mental health of young adults. The initiative will explore current schemes and programmes centred on student wellness at CGS member universities in the United States and Canada, and provide recommendations for future approaches to promote mental and emotional well-being in students.
“We want to create a road map for moving forward,” says Suzanne Ortega, CGS president and the principal investigator of the project, called Supporting Mental Health and Wellness of Graduate Students. “We’ll be offering advice about policies and resources that will help students in crisis while also creating an environment where graduate students can thrive.”
The project, supported by nearly US$280,000 in grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will gather input through surveys of administrators at CGS’s 500 or so member institutions across the world, along with focus groups that will probably involve students as well as those advocating on behalf of students. A key part of the conversation will take place at a workshop for students, administrators and mental-health specialists that is tentatively scheduled for October next year in Washington DC. An initial report of findings and recommendations for policies is scheduled to be published in December next year.
The pressure, competition and stress experienced by graduate students puts them at high risk for mental-health issues, Ortega says. Precise estimates of the prevalence of anxiety and depression in this population remain elusive, she notes, and graduate students need and deserve thoughtful, evidence-based support. “We’re convinced by the need,” she says. “We know that a significant minority of graduate students have clinical symptoms of distress.”
Nance Roy, the Jed Foundation’s chief clinical officer, says that few effective mental-health programmes aimed at graduate students are currently offered at academic institutions. The Jed Foundation assisted universities in developing guidelines that will help to address undergraduate mental health, but Roy points out that graduate students have different needs and life situations that could require tailored approaches. For example, graduate students might find it especially difficult to take time off when they’re feeling overwhelmed. “They may not be able to just step away from a research project,” she says. “We want to promote people taking time off if they need it.”
Roy is also concerned about mentorship, a crucial aspect of graduate training that doesn’t always receive much scrutiny. “That relationship needs a tremendous amount of attention,” she says.
Ortega and other investigators have identified some innovative approaches that deserve a closer look. Boston University in Massachusetts, for example, instituted a holiday policy this year that ensures two weeks, or ten working days, of paid holiday every year for PhD students on annual stipends. “The idea is that this will foster work–life balance, which is a big part of student wellness,” says Ortega.
Another is the Mental Health Bill of Rights and Responsibilities that was adopted by the graduate education department at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, in February. The document states that, among other things, any student who seeks mental-health treatment through the university will be assigned a care coordinator who can help them to navigate the system and connect with resources.
Mark Wallace, a neuroscientist and dean of the Vanderbilt University Graduate School, says that the bill of rights was a product of many discussions between graduate students and university leaders. “This approach ensures that everyone has a role to play in tackling mental-health issues on our campus, whether they be students, faculty or staff,” he says.
Covering new ground
Ortega says that the CGS initiative is the first of its kind in the United States and Canada. She and other investigators were partly inspired by other mental-health schemes, including the UK Council For Graduate Education’s first International Conference on the Mental Health & Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers, which took place in May (and was supported by Nature Research).
The CGS will co-host a global summit, Cultural Contexts of Health and Well-Being in Graduate Education, at the University of Manchester, UK, on 1–3 September. “There’s a growing recognition of these issues in Europe,” Ortega says.
Ortega and Roy hope that their project will inspire universities around the United States to take a closer look at at what they’re doing — or not doing — to promote the mental health of graduate students. The results should also lay the foundation for a future of better support for graduate students, including more scientifically rigorous studies of issues that this group faces, Ortega says.
“Graduate-student mental health and well-being has become one of the hottest topics that our graduate dean members want to see addressed,” Ortega says. “Clearly, we have a lot of work to do in the next 22 months.”