Mental Illness and Graduate School Programs Across the Nation

Can getting a master’s degree help your career outlook? Or is it more of a drain on your mental outlook? These are the questions education analyst Bree Hernandez explores in the next article.


 Today’s university students have more to balance than ever before, and Bree’s blog profiles many of the competing pulls. Still, the mental health and psychological well-being of students is not often addressed in enough detail. Bree’s piece seeks to spark discussion on this important topic.



Mental Illness and Graduate School Programs Across the Nation


By Bree Hernandez


Colleges and universities across the United States are seeing lots of positive changes—more student enrollment, for one thing, and higher levels of involvement in things like community service and social justice oriented activities. There are also some negatives arising, however, particularly when it comes to mental health. According to some reports, nearly a quarter of U.S. college students are being actively treated for depression, anxiety, and related mental health concerns. This affects both student academic performance and overall well-being. It puts strains on professors and campus health resources, and challenges administrators when it comes to treating all students equally—not to mention preparing all students for success in a job market that may not be as forgiving or understanding as the insular university community.


More and More Students Seeking Help

“Severe mental illness is more common among college students than it was a decade ago, with more young people arriving on campus with pre-existing conditions and a willingness to seek help for emotional distress, a paper presented at the 2010 American Psychological Association’s annual convention claimed. Most researchers and university personnel agree that that number is only rising.


“Overall, the average quality of depression and anxiety experienced by students in counseling has remained constant and relatively mild during the last decade,” the study said. “However, the percentage of students with moderate to severe depression has gone up from 34 to 41 percent. These outliers often require significantly more resources.”


There are usually a number of reasons for this upward tick, though better (and earlier) diagnosis is usually near the top of the list, alongside more effective medications. Students who, decades ago, would have been completely debilitated by their depression or anxiety are now able to seek effective treatment, and can often do well enough in school to be admitted to college.


A rise in the competitiveness of university programs may also be a factor. Especially in today’s economy where even graduation at the top of the class does not necessarily guarantee meaningful employment, many students have started wondering what it’s all for. This is particularly true when students are going into debt to finance their education, are struggling socially, or are having family or other domestic problems that pull their attention away from their schoolwork. Many of today’s students have been brought up in hyper-competitive high schools and have fought for entry into college. Knowing when it is acceptable to scale back is often hard.


Implications for Universities

One of the first places students usually go for help is to campus counseling centers. Nearly every school has one, though in the past these were typically places where students went for help managing stress and dealing with relationship issues, or to get advice on managing academic and social demands. Today, more students than ever before are seeking help for serious mental conditions—leaving some counseling centers scrambling to meet the growing demand in a responsible and helpful way.


“While most colleges and universities have some form of mental health counseling, the majority are understaffed and overwhelmed,” National Public Radio reported in 2011.

Most schools do staff licensed psychologists, the article said, but many are only available for a few hours each week—and a growing number are facing reduction through budget cuts and other funding drains at the larger university level.


Schools also face some concerns when it comes to providing a quality education to students who suffer from serious or recurring mental health problems. Depression and related concerns are typically covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means that students who can certify that they suffer are owed “reasonable accommodations” by schools and employers both.


For many, this translates as extra time to finish assignments, leniency when it comes to exam performance, and a flexible class attendance policy. Students often cite these sorts of accommodations as real lifesavers. Professors and administrators, meanwhile, often worry that they amount to little more than hand-holding, and may actually be doing students a disservice later on down the road. “There’s the danger that we take too much care and when they hit the real world that same kind of support isn’t there,” David Cozzens, dean of students and associate vice president of student affairs at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, recently told The Wall Street Journal.


The Graduate School Connection

Given the trends amongst undergraduates, it is perhaps not surprising that more and more students in graduate programs are also reporting mental health concerns in steadily rising numbers. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 9.5 percent of the U.S. adult population suffers from some sort of depressive mental health condition. A 2010 study of masters degree students showed that that number tends to be much higher in graduate programs—hitting a staggering 67 percent at the University of California-Berkeley, for instance.


Much of this likely has to do with the demands of the graduate school life. “In undergrad you learn that you have to be a 3.5 and up student and you learn to do really really well in courses,” Peter Vanable, chair of the psychology department at Syracuse University, told  NCC News Online. “In graduate school you get a different message. It’s not so much about the grades, it’s show us beyond that how you have the potential to contribute to the field that you’re in,” Vanable said. Much of a student’s work is also done is isolation—lengthy research and writing projects making up the bulk of the program—and the possibility that studies could drag on for years is often somewhat defeating for students without a clear sense of exactly where they are going, or why.


What Students Can Do to Ward Off Crisis

“Consider a break. A temporary leave to seek counseling or reassess priorities does not brand you as a failure, and taking time off to work outside academe could reveal new possibilities,” National Geographic’sScienceBlogs” website recommends to struggling grad students.


Seeking help early and often, whether from counseling services, trusted friends, or peer listeners is also a good option. Many students may also benefit from simple lifestyle changes: more sleep, better nutrition, and moderate exercise. Abstaining from heavy alcohol consumption, long a staple of the quintessential “college weekend,” may also help, even if just in the short term. There is no easy fix for mental illness or depression amongst college students, but preventative care and support can go a long way towards making the experience a more positive one for many.