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GRADUATE STUDENTS AT GREATER RISK FOR MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
2018-03-14 00:00:00
Vittorio Hernandez

Compared to the general population, graduate students are at a greater risk for mental health problems. A new study said the higher risk comes from social isolation, feelings of inadequacy, and the often abstract nature of their work.

There is also the not-so-big tenure-track job market, according to the research published in Nature Biotechnology. The risk of graduate students going through depression and anxiety is more than six times. But the academia can provide help for those who are going through the bioscience workforce pipeline through strong and validated interventions, Inside Higher Ed reported.

Moderate-to-severe depression

A survey was made using clinically validated scales for depression and anxiety. It was sent to students using email and social media. Ninety percent of the 2,279 respondents were PhD candidates who represented 26 nations and 234 academic institutions.

Those who were taking up graduate studies in humanities or social sciences made up 56 percent of the respondents, while 38 percent were students of biological and physical sciences. Another 2 percent were engineering students and 4 percent from other fields.

When the researchers analyzed the result of the survey, they noted that 39 percent of the respondents had scores that belong to moderate-to-severe depression which was only six percent of the general population.

The results of the poll were consistent with previous studies on nonstudent populations that found transgender, gender nonconforming graduate students, and women were significantly more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety compared to male students. Depression and anxiety were prevalent among 55 percent of transgender and 53 percent of gender-non-conforming graduate students.

Among female graduate students, 43 had anxiety and 41 percent were depressed. Among men, it was 34 percent anxiety and 35 percent depression.

Work-life balance

The researchers asked the respondents if they agreed that work-life balance was good for them. Those who disagreed with the statement were 56 percent who had moderate-to-severe anxiety, while 24 percent agreed with the statement. Those who disagreed with the statement and had depression were 55 percent, while those who agreed were 21 percent.

Other than the work-life balance of the graduate students, the study also looked into their relationship with their advisers and principal investigators. Among those with anxiety or depression, 50 percent did not agree that their immediate mentors provided them real mentorship, but 33 percent agreed. The authors pointed out that the findings indicate that strong, supportive and positive mentoring relationships between the graduate students and the PI/advisors correlate significantly with less anxiety and depression.

The authors pointed out that the striking high rates of anxiety and depression support a call to action to set up or expand mental health and career development resources for graduate students using enhanced resources within career development offices, faculty training, and a change in the academic culture.

A train-the-trainer mode should be followed by the academic institutions patterned after the National Institutes of Health program. Under the model, administrators and faculty members will be trained by mental health professionals to recognize and respond to the needs of the graduate students and provide referrals, if needed.  The authors added that the same model could be used by career development professionals to train faculty members to help the PhD students compete in the vast and constantly changing employment market.

They also advocate a shift in the culture within academia to remove the stigma that surrounds mental health and to ensure that the students are not hesitant to openly communicate with their faculty advisors. While many in the academe have spoken out about their own struggles, there are still fears of not gaining tenure or being judged by colleagues.

Creation of programs

Nathan Vanderford, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, said the findings call for a major need for institutions to create programs to help solve these issues, Science Mag reported. Institutions must view mental health as an essential component of the skill set needed for successful career development.

More academic institutions are now taking steps to address mental health issues, Wendy Ingram, the co-founder of a wellbeing and mental health peer support network, observed. She had a friend in the same program as a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley who committed suicide because of depression. She cited the establishment in the fall of 2017 by UC Berkeley of a satellite counseling service geared specifically for PhD students. In February, John Hopkins University came out with a 51-page report that looked into measures to improve support for student mental health and well-being on campus.

But Ingram noted that most of these initiatives are small and homegrown or based on individual departments. She said more needs to be done for graduate students who may experience additional challenges in the workplace and beyond because of their minority status, including LGBTQ+ students and women.

[researchpaper 리서치페이퍼= Vittorio Hernandez 기자]


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