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MENTAL HEALTH DISTRESS
IN GRADUATE SCHOOL

OCTOBER 2020

Mental health distress is a relatively common occurrence among graduate students, with roughly 40% of students endorsing depressive or anxiety symptoms according to a recent Nature study (Evans et al., 2018).

 

There are several common factors that may contribute to or exacerbate these difficulties, including the stress of academic life, moving away from an established support system, learning to adjust expectations for success, and existing in a culture that views mental health as a low priority.

 

It’s important to normalize taking a break and prioritizing our mental health.

 

Although the Nature study reported that 36% of graduate students sought mental health help as a result of their PhD, many individuals find it difficult to navigate the process of evaluating their own mental health or those around them who may be struggling.

 

If you are experiencing mental health distress, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. 

In this month’s module, we will start a conversation about recognizing and destigmatizing mental health, as well as fostering positive mental health within ourselves and others.

 

We hope that you continue engaging with this content beyond the end of the module.

Image by Anthony Tran

Image by Anthony Tran

Image by kike vega

Image by kike vega

Image by J W

Image by J W

Image by Ivana Cajina

Image by Ivana Cajina

Image by Priscilla Du Preez

Image by Priscilla Du Preez

Image by Toa Heftiba

Image by Toa Heftiba

Image by Fernando @cferdo

Image by Fernando @cferdo

Image by Dan Meyers

Image by Dan Meyers

Mudra Meditation

Mudra Meditation

MODULE 1

Stigma Surrounding Mental Health

October 4 - 10, 2020

Stigma is the disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.

 

As you’re likely aware, there’s a lot of stigma surrounding mental health and persons with mental illnesses. These negative beliefs or emotions are exacerbated in academia.

 

However, extreme stress, anxiety and other mental health problems are often normalized, causing students to feel the need to “tough it out” as opposed to feel and process their true emotions and experiences in grad school.

 

What are some of the negative perceptions you have about mental illnesses, especially among grad students? Explore the nuance of this idea - how can the stigma surrounding mental health be different for different illnesses or individuals of varying identities?
 

Stigma typically results in discrimination.

 

One’s peers or mentor may view someone as “weak” or “incapable” because of their mental illness.

 

Someone might also judge themselves for experiencing mental health struggles, causing them to become reluctant to seek help or feel as if they will never succeed if they can’t overcome your challenges.

 

Read this article to learn about others’ experiences surrounding this topic. Then, think about the discrimination you have personally experienced or have observed surrounding mental illness. How does the stigma hold people (perhaps you) back from accepting, seeking help for, and conquering their diseases?

 As we work to dismantle the stigma surrounding mental health by openly talking about our lived experiences, ensure that you are taking healthy steps to cope with the discomfort.

 

Recognize you are not alone in your struggles.

 

Mental illness is incredibly common among grad students, and a recent study in Nature Biotechnology involving several thousand graduate students found that they were six times more likely than the general population to experience anxiety and depression.

 

Seek therapy or surround yourself with others dealing similar struggles, such as through the PhD Balance community or through a support group at your university.

 

Don’t equate yourself or others with their illness: Instead of saying, “I’m bipolar,” say, “I have bipolar disorder.” Also, be sure to choose your language carefully when describing another person or something not living. For example, avoiding labeling someone as “crazy” or describing the up and down weather as “bipolar.” 

List a few ways, either in your journal or in Discord, about how you can better navigate the uncomfortable feelings associated with mental health stigma.

MODULE 2

Self-Evaluation

October 11 - 17, 2020

Mental illness can present itself in various ways.

 

Media portrayal of mental illness has conditioned us to look for violent outburst, prominent delusions, and hallucinations. While some of these symptoms might be prevalent in a given illness, it is important to recognize that one mental illness can present itself in myriad ways even in individuals with the same diagnosis.

 

As studies point to the mental health crisis among graduate students, an important question that arises is how to identify the early signs of mental health difficulties in yourself so you can seek help.

 

While the best person to diagnose a mental health illness is a trained specialist, there are a few things you can keep an eye out for to determine when to seek help.

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, some of the common symptoms of mental illnesses include isolation, extreme mood changes, and excessive worrying.

 

Unfortunately as graduate students, some of these common symptoms may be a typical part of any given week.

 

However, what distinguishes symptoms of mental illness from a difficult week is its severity

 

A way to keep track of common symptoms in your own life is through documentary practices such as journaling. Read this blog post to learn how to incorporate journaling into your routine as a way to monitor symptoms of mental illness.

 

Note that “journaling” doesn’t have to mean putting complex sentences on paper - doodling about your thoughts also counts!

While it is always encouraged to seek therapy before a small bother becomes a big problem, sometimes, we just need extra affirmation before reaching out for help.

 

As a first step in addition to journaling, there are various online resources to help you monitor symptoms.

 

This resource curates self-evaluation tests for some common mental illness. While you cannot draw diagnoses from these tests, they can be a great way to determine if you should seek professional help.

As we navigate how to self-evaluate, we recognize that seeking help isn’t always easy.

 

We recognize that several factors including financial burden may hinder certain individuals from seeking help. Sometimes even when you have the financial means, it may be difficult to find a therapist that fits your particular needs whether it be based on sexual identify or race.

 

If you have determined to seek professional help, we recommend the following resources:

MODULE 3

Recognizing the Signs In & Approaching Others

October 18 - 24, 2020

Mental health and the distress associated with it is both complex and multidimensional.

 

Because of this, each dimension deserves our undivided attention, and those experiencing any kind of distress deserve our undivided support.

 

One of the most important but often difficult facets of supporting individuals with mental health distress is recognizing the signs of distress and knowing how best to approach the individual.

Although mental health distress is multidimensional, some of the signs are similar.

 

A few of the most common signs are psychosomatic (physical) symptoms including disrupted sleep and appetite, inability to cope with daily issues/stress, social withdrawal, and inability to concentrate, among others.

 

Mental health distress can also present itself more subtly, depending on the individual; however, subtle cues don’t equate to less severity.

 

Below is an acronym that can help you know how to recognize and approach someone battling a mental illness:

 


R.E.L.A.

Recognize, empathize, listen, and advocate


Recognize and familiarize yourself with the symptoms of mental illness.


Empathize without competition. Actively listen, validate the other person’s experiences, and be mindful or your words, tone and body language. If you have had a similar experience, it may be appropriate to say, "I've experienced similar symptoms and would be happy to share my experience at a future time if you would find that helpful."


Listen - not just by hearing their verbal cues, but by noticing their physical cues as well. 


Advocate for a greater need to focus on mental illness in the community, academic realm, and professional setting.

Approaching someone (like a colleague or peer) dealing with mental health distress can be difficult.

 

It can be hard to know what to say, and you may be worried about saying the wrong things.

But don't let the fear of not having the right words turn you away from helping someone in need.

 

In approaching these conversations, it’s important to remember to remain empathetic and to listen.

 

Read this article, which assists in starting these difficult but necessary conversations. Learning this can make you a better ally for those who battle mental health distress.

 

Know that while providing support for someone can be extremely beneficial, there are also unique benefits that come from professional help - see Brittany Uhlorn's GradChat for more discussion on this.
 

One of the main needs of someone experiencing mental health distress is a support system.

 

The version of support needed can vary from person to person, but it’s critical to listen to what that person needs and move forward accordingly.

 

Check out this article that details a few steps to caring and supporting someone with mental health distress. After reading, internally evaluate how you can better support those dealing with mental health.

 

Remember to offer help and support, but don't force it upon the person.

While someone experiencing mental health distress might seem like they need help, it may not be the right time or decision to approach them.

 

Some individuals may prefer to work through their distress on their own, or may be processing their situation before moving forward with treatment. It can never hurt to ask someone how they are doing or if they want to talk, but respect their autonomy and give them space if they ask for it.

 

Remember that it is not your role or responsibility to save the person.

 

Keep an eye out for these signs that might clue you in to when a person needs a little space to process the situation before seeking help:

  1. They respectfully decline any offered help

  2. They indicate that they “are working through things”

  3. They are not visibly distressed

  4. They are not interfering with others in their environment

 

If someone indicates any intent to harm themselves or others, please provide them with these resources and/or seek additional help from individuals they trust.

MODULE 4

How to Leverage Your University for Mental Health Support 

October 25 - 31, 2020

It’s no surprise that graduate students are more prone to mental health distress compared to the general public due to the demanding and unique nature of training programs. When students are unable to strike a good work-life balance, this results in stress, anxiety, and other factors that can result in or exacerbate existing mental health distress. 

 

Fortunately, when universities recognize the importance of proper mental health care, a window for passionate students to get more involved in shaping mental health initiatives opens. 

 

If this resonates with you, here are some ways to help make your university more supportive of mental health. And if you’re struggling with your mental health, here are some existing resources that you can leverage.

Help your program/department and faculty to be a more supportive environment of students experiencing mental health distress.

 

Talk to your graduate student representative (or a senior student who can advocate to your program’s faculty on behalf of your peers) about getting more resources/addressing the stigma with more talks, workshops and trainings.

 

If you are personally experiencing mental health distress, be as open as you can with your mentor. By keeping lines of communication open, they can better help you navigate your situation.

 

If you aren’t comfortable approaching your mentor or faculty members alone, seek the help of a peer or senior lab member to serve as a conduit or mediator.  

If you are experiencing mental health distress, reach out to your university’s campus health service to find out what services and support they offer.

 

Many colleges offer both group and individual counseling for small fees, as well as provide free resources to support a multitude of conditions.

 

Did you know that your university’s disability office can be used for psychological distress in addition to physical disabilities or neurocognitive difficulties?

 

Check out this handout to understand why psychiatric difficulties can qualify as a disability, with several examples of types of impairment and different accommodations that can be provided.

Identify groups on campus with similar mental health-focused agendas, or advocate for mental health through your student government.

 

Student governments typically have graduate student senates that vote on bills and mandates for further discussion with school officials. Identify who your departmental senators are to discuss the importance of mental health care on your campus.

 

Potential topics to weave into your conversations can be increasing clinical services or counselors on campus, reducing stigma by normalizing conversations about mental health on campus, and providing trainings such as Mental Health First Aid.

 

If the group you identify has a niche audience such as catering to one specific group, discuss possible opportunities to expand the group’s reach without overstepping boundaries.

Consider starting a peer support group on campus.

 

Peer support is an opportunity for individuals with lived experiences to provide emotional or social support to others. Research continuously highlights the importance and effectiveness of peer support.

 

If you are wondering what starting a peer support group from scratch will look like, refer to the Peers for Progress website for valuable resources. If your university hasn’t sponsored the aforementioned Mental Health First Aid training, consider getting a group to take the Psychological First Aid course via Coursera.

MENTAL HEALTH PEER SUPPORT

Infographic

October 28, 2020

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