Is Graduate School Taking a Toll on My Mental Health?

If you’re reading this, you probably already know the answer to that question. But it can be helpful to look at a few questions that help gauge just how serious a mental health issue might be. This self-assessment is a good way to get honest with yourself about how grad school might be affecting your mental health.

Answer “agree” or “disagree” to the following statements.
  • School often feels overwhelming, but lately, so does life in general.
  • My sleeping habits have changed – I’m sleeping too much, or I’m not sleeping enough.
  • I’ve lost interest in doing things I used to enjoy. It’s safe to say I sometimes feel empty.
  • Sometimes I feel like a fraud. I keep waiting for everyone else to see how worthless I am.
  • I worry so much that sometimes those worries take over my life.
  • Friends and family have noticed concerning changes in me.
  • Self-doubt has been overwhelming me since I started grad school.
  • Sometimes I’m on a “high” and can’t slow down; other times I’m so depressed that I don’t want to get out of bed.
  • I turn to alcohol or drugs more and more often these days.
  • I find myself staying up way too late to work on assignments and then worrying that I didn’t spend enough time on them.

If you DISAGREE with most of these statements…

We’re glad you feel good! Even if you disagree with most of these statements, it’s always good to keep tabs on your well-being. Continue reading to learn what you can do to keep yourself mentally healthy.

If you AGREE with most of these statements…

You could be facing the challenges of mental illness. Keep reading to learn more about what you can do to find the proper help and treatment, so you can feel like yourself again.

Mental health in general is not something that we should blame people for, or just expect them to get over it. If someone says they have anxiety or depression, or any other mental health issue, it’s not because they aren’t trying their best, or they’re “choosing” to feel that way.

– Sara Stanizai

Understanding Common Mental Health Issues for Graduate Students

Though every student is different and the mental health challenges they might face will be quite different as well, some mental health difficulties tend to show up more often among grad students. It’s important to know what to look out for so that it becomes easier to recognize the symptoms and get help.

A Look at Graduate Mental Health & Why It Matters

Wondering why graduate mental health matters so much? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

19%

of counseling center directors believe the availability of psychiatric resources on campus is inadequate to meet student needs. American Psychological Association

Graduate student’s risk of anxiety and depression is more than six times higher than that of the general public. Among graduate students who reported suffering from depression or anxiety, more than 55 percent also reported an unhealthy work-life balance. Inside Higher Ed

32%

of Ph.D. students are at risk of developing depression or another common psychiatric condition. Research Policy

Between 2010 and 2016, the number of students seeking mental health services has steadily increased, as has the rate of hospitalizations and suicide attempts. Penn State Center for Collegiate Mental Health

It’s okay to not be okay. It’s not okay to struggle alone. Speaking up and reaching out helps to break the stigma of mental health being negative.

– Ashleigh Ostermann

Addiction & Substance Use Disorders

It isn’t unusual for a college student to try new things. But it’s important to note that for some, addiction and substance abuse problems can be lurking in the wings, waiting to take hold. Those in the grip of addiction will continue reaching for the addictive substance, even as it causes more and more problems in their lives. Those in college are more likely to drink and abuse substances. Graduate students, in particular, are more likely to use prescription stimulants – about 15 percent of grad students reported using stimulants improperly during their lifetime, with 67 percent of users turning to them for an academic boost.

Depression

Much more than a fleeting moment of sadness, depression is one of the most prevalent disorders. Those who suffer from it might seem perfectly fine to anyone else, but inside, they are struggling. The symptoms of depression include feelings of sadness or emptiness, losing pleasure in hobbies and time spent with friends, and prolonged trouble with eating or sleeping. It is thought to be triggered by a combination of genetic, biologic, environmental and psychological factors. Estimates say about 36 percent of all college students and 39 percent of graduate students suffer from depression.

Suicide

When mental health disorders begin, unfortunately, some might consider harming themselves. A study of more than 300 graduate students at Emory University found that over 7 percent of them had suicidal thoughts. It’s important to remember that there is always someone ready and willing to listen and help you find the assistance you need.

GET HELP NOW

If you are contemplating suicide, please drop everything right now and get help. Dial 911, call the crisis center at your college or university, or turn to the Lifeline at 800-273-TALK(8255). There are many people who want to help you, no matter what you’re going through, and they are available right now – all you have to do is pick up the phone.

Sleeping Issues & Disorders

Though many college students often choose to go without sleep, those with insomnia and other sleeping disorders might have no choice in the matter. Insomnia is likely the most commonly known sleeping disorder, but there are several others, such as narcolepsy, sleepwalking or restless leg syndrome. Studies have found that 27 percent of college students suffer from various sleeping disorders and those students had lower GPAs that put them at risk for academic failure. Sleep disorders are often accompanied by other psychiatric issues, so students might find that one exacerbates the other.

Stress & Anxiety Disorders

When in college, having some level of stress and anxiety is a given. But when those issues begin to take over a person’s life, it might be more than just worry about the next test. Those with stress and anxiety disorders suffer from worries that don’t get better with time. They might feel constantly on edge, have trouble sleeping, suffer from fatigue, find it impossible to concentrate and feel tense and irritable. Some might even suffer from panic attacks or social anxiety. Anxiety is the most prevalent mental health issue among college students, with over 41 percent seeking help for the condition.

Sara Stanizai: Why Graduate Students are At-Risk for Mental Health Concerns

Sara Stanizai is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, a Diplomate of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy, and the owner of Prospect Therapy, an LGBTQ+ affirming practice in Long Beach, California, focused on serving high-achievers and first-generation Americans as they manage expectations of their families and themselves.

  • There is lots of research that says graduate students now more than ever are experiencing mental health issues. That could mean more graduate students are reporting mental health issues, and/or seeking help for those issues.

    There could be many things causing this:

    • More visibility and less stigma of seeking treatment.
    • Recognizing mental health issues and calling them what they are. 
    • Understanding that they are a serious concern that can be life threatening, and not just “someone not trying hard enough.” 
    • An increase in exposure to stress related to personal, local, and world events. We’re more inundated with information now, and much of it is stressful!
    • We’re up all night on our phones reading about events within our social circles, but also about national and world events.
    • Comparing ourselves to others on social media, where people can curate the “greatest hits” of their lives.

    The same pressure that earlier generations felt on the need for a college degree, now younger generations are feeling regarding graduate school. College was a place to “find yourself” and explore your interests, but graduate school is more focused and there is more pressure. Additionally, graduate students are not living in a dorm and maybe working on the weekend. Graduate students have families, jobs, and more responsibilities, so there is more pressure on them.

  • Start to pay attention to your own habits, and those of your friends and colleagues. A balanced lifestyle, even for a busy student, involves some amount of self-care and scheduled down time. If you’re not able to find time to take care of yourself, or if you find the time but when the time comes you skip the self-care and anxiety makes you fixate on your research, you might be experiencing a serious problem. 

    People sometimes skip meals or social events because “they’ll feel better if they just finish this assignment.” But when they finish the assignment, they don’t actually feel better! Unrealistic expectations or comparing yourself to others can contribute to depression and anxiety.

    If you notice changes in your mood, if you struggle to identify or rely on a support system, or you find that you are using something to “escape” more and more frequently – video games, social media, alcohol or drugs – you might be on the path to a mental illness.

  • As a private practice clinician, I partner with many local college and university campuses, and know that they employ and refer out to high quality providers. 

    In many cases, students can expect an experience very similar to going to any other provider. Any counselor or therapist anywhere is bound by state and federal privacy laws regarding confidentiality of your treatment, so the concern about going on campus vs. going to a private practice across town isn’t necessary. The on-campus provider is just as confidential as anyone else you might go to.

    Students can save on the cost of seeing a therapist, as campus-sponsored counseling centers offer services for no cost or low cost. The quality of clinicians is generally quite good, whether the counselors are licensed or pre-licensed. The nice thing about pre-licensed clinicians is that they get regular supervision each week, so you can be sure you are getting high quality care.

How to Navigate & Receive Accommodations in Graduate School

When you need accommodations to help you get through grad school, the law is on your side. State-funded institutions are usually required to provide reasonable accommodations or adjustments for students with disabilities, including mental illnesses. This falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It’s vitally important to understand your rights, as well as your responsibilities. Keep reading to learn more about potential accommodations for you while in grad school.

Mental Health Accommodation Examples for Graduate Students

Sometimes a simple accommodation can mean the difference between a good school experience and a bad one. These reasonable accommodations and modifications can make life much easier for graduate students.

  • During difficult periods, some students might benefit from reducing their course load. Many schools will be amenable to this, especially since graduate programs often have a window of completion; for instance, a doctoral candidate might be allowed to take up to seven years to complete the work.

  • Some programs will require hands-on work, such as master’s programs that require a certain number of supervised hours to earn the degree. Students who are struggling with the workload required by these programs might be able to receive an accommodation that allows them to spread out the required hours.

  • If short deadlines lead to crippling anxiety, students might be able to get more flexible deadlines that allow them adequate time to plan and coordinate their schedule. However, students should expect that even extended deadlines are reasonable enough that they are still learning at roughly the same pace as their classmates.

  • While tutoring is often available to all students, this accommodation can allow for even more hours with a tutor. This can reduce anxiety, alleviate stress and potentially even help a student avoid triggers that could make existing mental illnesses worse.

  • A strong mentor can help grad students see their studies through, and can also give them a boost regarding networking, post-graduate plans and job opportunities. These mentors can often help ground the grad student when they are feeling overwhelmed.

  • Requesting private space and time to take a test, give a presentation or otherwise complete an assignment can make life easier for those who suffer from anxiety or other serious mental illnesses.

Requesting Mental Health Academic Accommodations in Grad School

Students deserve the opportunity for reasonable accommodations – and the law recognizes that. But how should someone go about getting the accommodations they need? Here’s a brief step-by-step guide to help get the process started.

  • Some accommodations will come naturally, such as taking the online version of a course or using the extended completion time to finish a degree. If there are some accommodations that need extra input and attention from the school, those are the ones you should target.

  • Though they might go by a variety of names, each institution should have an office dedicated to providing accommodations for those with disabilities, including mental health challenges. You can find this office and the proper contact person by asking the student health center or admissions office.

  • In order to receive accommodations, students are often required to prove must prove they have of a mental illness necessitating the accommodation. The disability resource center can tell you exactly what documentation you must provide. An in-depth application might also be required.

  • Though schools will try their best to honor your request for accommodations, sometimes you will have to meet them halfway – for instance, if you ask for an accommodation that the school can’t provide due to the nature of the program you’re in, they might offer a different accommodation that could work just as well. Be open to the possibilities.

  • If it appears that an accommodation just isn’t going to work after you’ve tried it for a few weeks or months, get in touch with the disability resource center and let them know. They will work with you to find a better solution.

There is a misconception of what depression looks like. I have a bubbly personality, am educated and look like I have my life together.

– Ashleigh Ostermann

Mental Wellness Strategies & Support for Graduate Students

Finding the right support system and wellness strategies is vitally important for anyone facing mental health issues. Luckily, there are a plenty of options, both on and off campus, to help graduate students stay as healthy as possible.

8 Wellness Strategies for Graduate Students

Creating strategies for good mental health can make getting through grad school much easier. Here are some tips.

  • “It doesn’t have to be daily, but it should be a pattern of self-care that creates some relief in your week or month,” Stanizai said. “Make sure you treat self-care, socializing, rest, and hobbies just as you do homework assignments and class time. You can’t have one without the other!”

  • Your physical health has a direct impact on your mental health. Get plenty of exercise, eat healthy foods, lay off the caffeine and avoid drugs and alcohol. Make a point of getting physicals every year, and don’t hesitate to go to the doctor when something seems amiss.

  • “Sometimes we don’t realize how nervous or withdrawn we are until it’s been a few weeks or months. If you can routinely check in with your mood and energy levels, you can notice small changes much earlier, before they become big changes,” Stanizai said. She suggests keeping a journal, meeting regularly with friends and practicing meditation as good ways of keeping tabs on your mental health.

  • Sometimes the terrible things happening in the world take center stage, and that can wear down even the most mentally-healthy person. There is no shame in taking an extended break from social media when the news becomes too much to handle.

  • Those who know you outside of academics can offer a unique perspective. “They will be the best to tell you if you don’t seem like yourself,” Stanizai said. “Others who are in the same grind as you may not notice, or may even have their own issues clouding their judgment.”

  • Getting help academically can lessen the mental toll taken by grad school. Furthermore, reaching out for help with mental illness can have a positive effect on your academics. Bottom line: Getting help when you need it is a win-win situation.

  • If you are prescribed medication to help with mental health issues, take it as directed. Never stop taking a medication simply because you feel better and wonder if you still need it – you likely feel better because of the medication, not in spite of it. If a medication isn’t working for you, tell your physician as soon as possible.

  • “It’s not a sustainable lifestyle,” Stanizai pointed out. “Just ask any grad student in their last year of their program! Recognizing that it’s a limited period of time can help put things in perspective.”

On-Campus Resources

  • Most schools have a student health center; from there, you can find counseling and mental health centers that are ready to assist you. If you’re not sure where to find them, start with the admissions office.

  • Each school should have a center or department with the sole purpose of meeting the needs of students with a variety of disabilities, including mental illnesses. These centers provide students with the information they need to make informed decisions about their education, accommodations, special adjustments and more.

  • Many schools have advocacy groups for students with a variety of issues. Look for one that offers help for those with mental illness. You can usually find a good lead through the campus counseling service, student health center or disability resource center. If there isn’t an advocacy group on your campus, consider starting one, such as creating a chapter of Active Minds.

  • From those who suffer from serious mental illness to those who need an occasional boost in mood, there is probably a support group for them. Check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness for a comprehensive list of support groups and clubs available on campuses across the nation.

Off-Campus Resources

  • There are numerous online communities and resources for those suffering from mental illness. Some of them, like the National Grad Crisis Line, focus on graduate students. Others, like Mental Health America, are more general but provide active message boards and other ways to connect with individuals going through the same challenges.

  • There are thousands of apps available that focus on everything from connecting students with mental health resources to self-guided assistance through panic attacks. Apps like Talkspace, Headspace and AnxietyCoach are great places to begin.

  • Locating care providers for mental illness can be tough, especially if a student lives far away from a large metro area, as is often the case for online students. Try the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to find a provider near you.

  • Those seeking a support group in their local community can ask their physician or counselor about the various options available. Students can also find a community support group through Mental Health America, which provides a comprehensive list of support groups that focus on certain issues.

The best strategy is a preventative strategy. Burn out is much harder to recover from if you’re already there. It’s much easier to prevent ahead of time than to recover from it after the fact.

– Sara Stanizai

Ashleigh Ostermann: My Experience with Depression and Anxiety in Grad School

Ashleigh Ostermann is from St. Petersburg, Florida and currently resides in Orlando. She is the marketing manager for Schoolhaus, a communications agency. Ashleigh is passionate about her clients as she continuously builds relationships with each and every one of them to develop their brand’s story and build strategic content marketing.

  • I have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety. I believe it’s been about 5 years since I started medication. I knew that something was wrong from a young age though, maybe 14 years old and just dealt with it internally. I called it ‘white knuckling’ because I would just push through to still get good grades in college, and at least look like I was okay. Anyways, back to graduate school. I started in January 2015 and earned a Master of Arts in Mass Communication (MAMC) with a specialization in Social Media from the University of Florida in August 2017.

    During that time I was working full-time, dealing with a breakup with someone I was with for over eight years and was committed to maintaining a 4.0 GPA. Talk about triggers, right? But the good thing was that I was aware of my mental illness and that I had to take the steps to be proactive about handling it. 

    It wasn’t easy. I repeat, not easy, but I found a medication combo that works for me, I reached out to friends and family when I was fighting a depressive episode and I would go to counseling, as needed. I did also do a little of the ‘grin and bear it’ when needed.

  • I found resources such as in-person counseling and smartphone applications to be helpful for my mental health. I think that it’s really important to find a counselor that you click with, as I had tried a few in the past that I just didn’t feel like I could openly talk to. Being open and upfront (not being afraid of being vulnerable) with your counselor is key. Otherwise, they won’t know how to help you.

    With that said, mental illness is isolating. I felt embarrassed at times, ashamed even, that I was battling such dark things. On the outside, I looked cheery, bubbly and happy, yet I wasn’t feeling that way on the inside. Using mobile applications helped me connect with others going through similar situations and let me know that I wasn’t alone.

  • Absolutely there were times where I thought I couldn’t continue grad school. Those negative thoughts that I didn’t deserve to be furthering my education, that I wasn’t good enough or smart enough, times where I just didn’t have any emotion towards anything and the thought of “why am I even doing this” came up.

    Ways I pushed through these moments was to let myself feel how I felt and then once it wasn’t as bad, think through why I was in grad school, what I was gaining from it. I also journaled through a personal blog. Writing out – unfiltered – of what I was experiencing and feeling helped me a lot. Looking back on different posts where I was battling a depressive episode, I see how far I’ve come and that while I have low points in my life, I also have high points.

  • Take it one step at a time and find out what works for you. If you know that you’re proactive and are able to speak up when you need help, then rely on your support system. If you know that you internalize and it’s hard to speak up, look for an app or resource that you like and feel comfortable with and try it out. That way there’s no extra pressure of doing something you’re uncomfortable with when you’re already struggling.

    Mental health is just as important as physical health. If a student was physically injured and it interrupted their studies, you wouldn’t say to get over it. You would work with the student to find a solution for the problem or obstacle. I strongly feel that this should be the same as if a student comes to a school with mental health struggles. It’s not an excuse, just something to work out.