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Michael Price

Breaking Taboos about Grad Students in Distress

A couple of weeks ago, current postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse (a pseudonym) contributed an article to Science Careers trying to put into words the overwhelming stress and pressure that so many science grad students face. It was an essay designed to help explain
how the graduate experience can take its toll on one’s mental well-being, and while it certainly doesn’t excuse the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, by former neuroscience grad student James Holmes, it may provide some insight into just how delicate mental health issues can be for struggling academics.

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story looking into how universities are grappling with support services for distressed graduate students. The story notes that between January and June of this year, nearly 750 grad students called the 24-hour National Graduate Student Crisis Line (1-800-GRAD-HLP) seeking advice on problems such as difficulties with advisers, feeling disrespected in one’s department, feeling isolated and alone, financial difficulties, and failing lab experiments and worrying about eventually finding a job.
Many of these concerns are ones DeWhyse addressed in her Science Careers article.

But a national crisis hotline isn’t enough to help these students, the Chronicle article says; individual universities need to provide support, as well. That’s a tricky proposition for a couple of reasons, the article adds: Mental health issues are still seen as somewhat of a taboo (although that’s improving, the article notes), and faculty members are “still sometimes unprepared or unwilling to be front-line counselors for students in distress.” Also, the increasingly international and multicultural makeup of many labs means that universities are having difficulty sorting through cultural differences to provide help.
What seems clear from both the Chronicle article and DeWhyse’s essay is that students need more support than they’re currently receiving. Easing the taboos and recognizing that while mental health may sometimes affect performance, it is different from one’s intellectual capacity, should also help faculty members respond to struggling students and encourage students to seek help when they need it. Not only will students and campuses themselves be healthier and safer, DeWhyse says in her essay, but scientific productivity will likely go up, as well.