Twitter Recap: #MHPhDChat

The AMHC was proud to co-host another #MHPhDChat session on Twitter. Together with @CRThomasPhD, we talked institutional support for mental health at the graduate level. In case you missed our chat session, here are the three important take-aways from the chat. Please join us next time!

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Recognizing Unique Needs of Graduate Students

Mental health is a major concern in higher education more generally – and thankfully, this issue is getting more and more attention. But many of the stressors faced by graduate students are unique. To name a few, the indefinite length of most PhD programs, challenges in the student-supervisor relationship, the long hours of largely unstructured but oh-so-critical writing, and the anxiety-inducing realities of the academic job market. And of course, as we move into our late 20’s, 30’s and beyond, adult life itself brings new challenges and opportunities, which can be difficult to manage as a full-time student.

Twitter discussants like @steph_coen pointed out that it can make all the difference when institutions have counselling services that are explicitly structured to acknowledge this reality:

If your institution is looking to do something for graduate mental health, a program like the one at Queen’s mentioned above may be an excellent concrete step you could suggest. Or, at the departmental level, check out this excellent suggestion from @a_m_alcorn0131, which acknowledges that having the right person to talk to about mental health can make all the difference:

What do Appropriate Mental Health Accommodations Look Like?

Most of us have worked as TAs or instructors and are familiar with the typical accommodations offered to undergraduates with disabilities. These primarily come into play for exams – students may be given extended time, a distraction-free area to write, or an alternative test format. Students with mental health issues that make it difficult for them to attend every class might receive extended deadlines or access to a note-taking service. But what kind of accommodations should graduate students receive? Especially when it comes to mental health concerns, the answer to this question can be unclear.

At some universities, accommodations for graduate students are an extension of those received by undergraduates:

Some participants in the discussion pointed us towards helpful articles on the topic, like this one from “The Professor Is In,”  which makes recommendations for how universities should administer leave to graduate students. And this post on PhDisabled which points out that given the many differences between undergrad and graduate work, many incoming PhDs may not know in advance exactly what accommodations they will need to be successfully. Indeed, graduate school is structured differently and so may require very different types of accommodations: 

It’s clear at this point that more needs to be done and that institutions need to be open to creative approaches to accommodating graduate students who struggle with mental illness.  

Advocating & Taking Control of Your Mental Health

While the suggestions above are promising and exactly the sort of changes that AMHC hopes to encourage through our advocacy work, the reality is that many of us are floundering alone. Several people in the chat pointed out that at their universities, there is basically no existing infrastructure or policy in place to support graduate student mental health. In an informal poll taken by @CRThomasPhD, over 50% of respondents said more needed to be done at their institutions.

This is a difficult situation, but our Twitter discussants also talked about what they’ve been able to do on our their own, independent of institutional efforts:

And even if your university is making changes to their infrastructure, there’s still plenty of room for personal advocacy, because policy does not always translate into meaningful change on the ground:

Many of us have seen this recent article by Levecque and colleagues (2017) suggesting that at least half of graduate students experience psychological distress, and many are also at risk of diagnosable psychiatric disorders. This sends a strong message that we need to advocate for cultural changes which take a proactive rather than reactive approach. @annvyskinsky makes an excellent point about this:

All in all, our discussion probably raised more questions than it answered, but this is an important conversation to get started.  Do you have further thoughts? Share in the comments below. And get in touch with us if you would be interested in writing on any of these topics for a future guest blog post here on AHMC!

#MHPhD Chats are held on the second Tuesday of each month. Follow @CRThomasPhD and  stay tuned for the next one.


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