Jennifer Andersen, a UNL sociology graduate teaching and research assistant, has seen a considerable difference in her daily workload since starting her doctoral program in fall 2017.
“I feel as though I’m handling it well, but it is rough sometimes,” she said. “You have to be self-disciplined as a graduate student, which can be difficult when there is a lot of outside noise.”
Recent scientific findings report that graduate students are six times more likely to develop depression or anxiety than the general public.
The report from the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology found 41 percent of graduate students surveyed scored within the range of moderate to severe anxiety, and 39 percent placed in the moderate to severe depression range.
In comparison, undergraduate students experienced similar rates of mental health issues. A report from the University of Chicago found 42 percent of undergraduate students cited anxiety as a top concern during their time in school, while 37 percent experienced depression at some point during college.
While college students at all academic levels face relatively similar rates of mental health issues, it’s the new and unexpected outside factors that cause graduate students to struggle more noticeably and oftentimes develop mental health issues or see pre-existing issues worsen.
Belinda Hinojos works with graduate students as the training director at Counseling and Psychological Services. She said graduate students encounter new challenges different from their undergraduate studies, and managing it all can be difficult.
“... Graduate students are often expected to take a full course load early on, in addition to conducting research, teaching courses and managing an assistantship,” she said. “That is a lot to manage.”
Jazmin Castillo, a research assistant and master’s student in applied ecology, said she’s learning to manage the shift from undergraduate to graduate studies.
“I was so isolated my first year because I was the only one in my lab,” she said. “I had nobody to turn to for any advice or general questions that I did not want to bother my advisor. I went through a phase of wondering if I had made the wrong choice being in graduate school.”
The spike in anxiety and depression among graduate students stems not only from a poor work-life balance, but also from a lack of support from professors and academic colleagues, the reports show.
Brianna McKay, a graduate student in the department of nutrition and health sciences, said she was confronted with one major change from an otherwise smooth transition from undergraduate to graduate studies.
“The biggest thing that is different is that there are definitely higher expectations,” she said. “There’s no playing the ignorance card at this level.”
McKay serves as a research assistant and works as a study coordinator, recruiting and managing 70 participants for an industry-sponsored clinical trial.
“It can be stressful, no doubt,” she said. “It’s exceptionally easy to lock yourself in the lab all day to get stuff done, only later realizing you never saw the light of day. Some days are better than others, and you really have to keep working with the end in mind.”
The American Psychological Association reports college students at all levels across the country are seeking more help for mental health issues than ever before.
On-campus resources for mental health issues, such as individual therapy and support therapy groups, are readily available, and Hinojos said they can help students maintain a healthy work-life balance. She said finding a balance looks different at every stage of a student’s life.
The university offers a graduate women’s group, a research support group and a group named “Thriving in Grad School” to help students whose needs might be more specific and are tailored to graduate studies.
Castillo said one professor helped her realize others face challenges in graduate school too, when she opened up about her own experiences as a former graduate student.
“Once I got a research assistantship, I gained a cohort that provided me a group where I could ask questions with others who were experiencing the same thing as myself,” she said.
UNL recently welcomed Connie Boehm as director of Big Red Resilience, a program that helps students overcome the daily challenges and stress college brings. The program plans to offer peer-mentor programs to students in the spring of 2019.
Other on-campus resources for students battling mental health issues include online mental health screenings, couples counseling and suicide prevention resources.
“I have learned to realize that taking time out of my day away from my work allows me to refresh my thoughts,” Castillo said. “I try to do sports or relax with my dog, especially when I am stuck with a problem. It has allowed me to take a step back and acknowledge that I am more than my research.”
This article was originally published in the November/December 2018 edition of The DN.