Letter to the Editor – Feb 2, 2016


It’s Time to Talk: Graduate Student Mental Health

“Grad school is HARD!”

How many times have you heard this, or said it yourself, since you made the decision to come to grad school?  Or better yet, even when you started applying?

Something that I continue to grapple with is the value of a university degree, how we measure student success, how we measure academic worthiness, and how these all tie into someone’s feelings of wellbeing and self-worth.  Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that simply paying tuition should be the ticket to getting that fancy degree.

But are we not concerned that when someone says they are having a hard time, our first reaction is to shrug our shoulders and make tired jokes about how this is somehow normal, somehow some rite of passage?

A few months ago, two frightening articles came out.  In the first, Melonie Fullick criticizes a new book that is coming out: “57 Ways to Screw up in Grad School: Perverse Professional Lessons for Graduate Students.”  Perverse, indeed.  As if the pressure of grad school wasn’t enough, we need to take some horrible embarrassing missteps and turn them into some sort of morbidly laughable how-not-to guide.  The second article was even more concerning: “There’s an awful cost to getting a PhD that no one talks about.”  What’s that cost?  Isolation.  Depression.  Mental illness.  Suicidal ideation.

Now put those in context with ever-rising tuition costs, academics who feel that because they had to suffer when they were in grad school, so should the next generation, and a general code of silence around mental health issues in general society (universities are no exception), and it is no surprise that these articles can be and are being written.

To bring it closer to home, my position on the GSA includes oversight of our health and dental insurance plan coverage, administered through StudentCare. In November, we met with our representative to look at our most recent usage, in comparison to previous years. What do we see? Prescription drug claims related to mental health drugs (central nervous system agents; this includes anti-depressants and anti-psychotics) make up by far the largest proportion of our drug claims at just over 40% – compared to the next category, which makes up less than 20%. Claims related to appointments with mental health professionals (psychologists and social workers) have increased almost four fold over the past three years.

Of course, I am thrilled that we are able to provide coverage that is so obviously needed. This relieves the financial pressure off of students, which, if you are suffering from some amount of mental health issues, any relief of pressure is a good thing. But again, this begs the question of why. Why are graduate students so in need of these services? And what are we doing to be proactive and get to the root causes, rather than reactively providing insurance for drugs and therapy? And what is our responsibility – as the Graduate Student Association, as faculty and staff members, as an institution, and as a community?

So, what to do?

For starters, we need to stop seeing struggle as a rite of passage.  Rather, we need supportive faculty members who remember their struggle, and use it as a way to do better by their students.

We need supports, both in programming and policy.  Laurier has done well at this, but there is of course always room for improvement.  Laurier has a wonderful, if over-burdened, Wellness Centre, where students have access to healthcare, including counselling and crisis services.  Currently, the Graduate Students’ Association is pushing forward several initiatives around student/advisor relationships, mentoring, financial wellbeing and fee payment issues, as well as ongoing review of our existing programming and initiatives.  The GSA’s Board of Directors also has one facet of graduate student wellbeing as a topic of discussion at each of their monthly meetings.  The GSA also hosts wellness events and shares information on social media.  Lastly, the GSA is so concerned about graduate student wellness that it is actually one of our six value propositions, to ensure that it is embedded in everything we do.

But most of all, we need to start talking about this.  “What to do” needs to be a discussion amongst all involved – students, professors, staff, and administration.  Professors should be aware that they become a main contact point for their students – and so they must approach their students’ issues with empathy, compassion, tact, and support.

So let’s break the code of silence.  Let’s talk about making graduate education an amazingly challenging and rewarding experience that doesn’t yield nightmares, therapist visits, doctors appointments, and prescriptions.

By Eleanor McGrath, AVP Student Services – Graduate Students Association

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