Even though we know more about mental health than ever, we are still reluctant to talk about it when we experience mental health problems. Rather than seeking medical attention early, we may find ourselves floored and have trouble completing even the most mundane of tasks, resulting in seeking solace in unhealthy choices and poor self-care. We often think we’re the only ones, when the reality is we’re one of many.
Research estimates between 30% and 50% of graduate students will experience a mental health problem during graduate school, with PhD students faring worst. While it’s also true that mental health issues tend to surface in your twenties, the grad school environment throws up major challenges to maintaining a positive sense of well-being: we have high expectations to succeed, carry the weight of financial uncertainty on our backs, and can become utterly lost both personally and academically. “Stress and anxiety are common issues for graduate students,” confirms Kerry Landers, who speaks with many students in her role as Assistant Dean for Student Affairs. “This frequently stems from wanting to do well, or advisor conflicts. Graduate students need to reach out when these issues feel overwhelming,” she adds.
During her term as GSC president in 2016-17, Kyla Rodgers, recognized the sense of shame and uncertainty graduate students felt when they experienced problems with mental health. A lack of discussion about just how common mental health issues are along with reluctance to seek medical attention prompted Rodgers to advocate for greater awareness of the problem, and higher visibility of the resources and strategies that could help. “Depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns are extremely complex, and the mechanisms underlying these disorders are poorly understood. We know that they are biologically-based conditions, but symptoms can be exacerbated by other factors such as poor nutrition or sleep hygiene, lack of exercise, high stress, and/or low social support—many of which are familiar struggles for graduate students. I wanted Dartmouth graduate students to understand that prioritizing even one of these essential components of health, while not curative, can help ameliorate the symptoms of common mental health conditions. My hope is that an open discussion will eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness and allow current and future students to comfortably seek the resources they need, which will help everyone have happier, healthier, and more productive graduate experiences.”
The Graduate Student Council, in partnership with the School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, has designated February as Mental Health Awareness month to raise awareness of mental health problems and issues. Current GSC President Chris Carroll says “As awareness of mental health becomes more prevalent, it is doubly important to recognize the impact graduate school can have on any individual. Combined with the seclusion a New Hampshire winter can bring, we hope to raise our own awareness at Dartmouth and bring our graduate community together during the month of February.”
The events address many significant markers for positive well-being including self-acceptance, a feeling you have control over your environment, healthy and productive relationships, a sense of personal growth, and living a meaningful and purposeful life. Each of these comes under attack at one point or another during the years of grad school, and finding strategies to practice resilience can help stem the tide of anxiety, depression, and all that comes with these states of mind.
You can find a list of all the events on the GRAD website, and more generally, Dean Landers advocates for “Making sure to take time to exercise, eat healthily, spend time with friends, and just taking some down time are good strategies to employ. If you are having trouble sleeping or not getting any work done or just feeling down it’s good to make an appointment with the counseling center to have someone to talk to about how you are feeling.”