On March 3, 2017, Dr. Karen Winters, the director of Student Health Services at WUSM, and Dr. Rimiko Thomas, a Staff Psychologist, discussed with us some common mental health challenges that graduate students face. These are some of the topics and suggestions we talked about:
The most common reason students seek counseling is stress. There are an incredible number of sources of stress for graduate students. For example, there is much more ambiguity and structure compared to undergraduate study, work can involve long hours that vary greatly, there can be pressure to work harder from PIs and from comparing oneself with other graduate students. There can seemingly be long periods without progress being made especially between qualifying examinations and defending one’s thesis. Furthermore, the amount of time available for social support may be limited and the types of social support one has is likely different. One may not develop a close set of friends like in undergraduate and relationships tend to be more collegiate and professional, and consequently less deep.
Expectations are another big source of stress for graduate students. Some idealistic expectations can seem unrealistic. It is not often discussed that some of the same expectations from undergraduate study (like turning in assignments on time) should be modified for graduate study. Then there are also cultural expectations. You could be the first person to go to graduate school in your family, or you could come from a family that is full of high-achievers and the same is expected of you.
The symptoms of stress vary greatly between individuals and can include constant worrying, low mood and sadness, difficulty making decisions, being less creative, excessive smoking/alcohol, insomnia, dissatisfaction with work, poor relationships with colleagues, missing deadlines, stopping social activities or regularly pleasurable activities, being irritable or argumentative, etc. There are certainly many methods one can use to destress, but what is often a problem for graduate students is letting oneself destress. Setting time out to relax can seem undeserving or indulgent, especially when you might think needing a break is a sign of weakness. But really there is a difference between self-indulgence and self-love. Productivity can increase from taking a break and one can often feel more motivated and energized to work afterwards!
We also learned about the prevalence of imposter syndrome in students at WashU, in which one experiences self-doubt and/or an unwillingness to appreciate one’s own abilities. Attributing one’s own accomplishments to luck or believing one does not belong here are common thoughts. One way to combat this is to do a thorough self-evaluation to ask if you are underestimating your strengths, why did you come to graduate school in the first place, what are your passions, etc.
Seeking help is one of the most important things one can do to cope. For full-time students, WashU offers short-term and long-term counseling options, with 24/7 availability. There is a full list of options and providers at https://wusmhealth.wustl.edu/students/mental-health-information/. When one calls student health, they can make an appointment just to “talk” without mentioning specifics in order to protect privacy.
Blogpost written by Simon Hsu, Connections Data and Metrics Leader
This blog is made to record the information learned at Connections lectures.
All information provided on Connection's web site is provided for information purposes only. Although every reasonable effort is made to present current and accurate information, Connection's makes no guarantees of any kind and cannot be held liable for any outdated or incorrect information.