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Mental Health & Graduate Schooling During A Pandemic

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

The degree to which students feel the pandemic rest on capital (social, financial, intellectual, etc.)

(#mentalhealthingradschool #mentorship #graduateschoolingincolor )

COVID-19. All of a sudden, I am doing every single thing from home - working, resting, learning, praying, exercising, grocery shopping, you name it. On top of this, I’m in a Ph.D. program, which is not an easy feat. The physical, spatial barriers that kept me sane and provided me with a literal breathing room between every part of my daily life has been put on temporary hold for ten months now, with no clear view of when it will end.

I miss a lot of things I used to take for granted. I miss studying and social interactions in coffee shops and libraries. I miss in-person classes and talking to my professors and colleagues away from a computer screen or my phone. I miss people—my family, who are thousands of miles away from me. I miss my friends and the hangouts we scheduled into our busy lives. I miss life outside without a mask. I’m sure some of you can relate to this.

I want to acknowledge that despite these challenges, I am blessed and fortunate to have many things that I know a lot of people have lost during this difficult time.

I want to acknowledge that despite all these challenges, I am blessed and fortunate to have many things that I know a lot of people have lost during this difficult time. I have a job that supports me, the same position I had pre-COVID. I’m healthy and have not lost family members due to the pandemic. I have a home that I can work and live in peacefully. I have people and resources that continue to support me with new challenges that this pandemic has presented, like my emotional and mental health. These privileges have afforded little change to my life since March. I want to name that and the fact that people cannot say the same.

In that vein, I want to highlight some of the things I’ve learned about students and their pandemic-related challenges, particularly mental health. For one, I have been dealing with heightened mental health struggles this year and am therefore moved to shed a little bit of light on it.

I know from my daily Twitter scrolls and conversations with friends in and outside the academy that the pandemic has severely impacted peoples’ mental health. Graduate students are among these folks. I have seen my therapist three times since March, for the first time in four years. Like many graduate students, I have experienced heightened anxiety triggered by stress, insomnia, and depressive feelings. According to a survey conducted by the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium and taken by 15,000 graduate students, anxiety among graduate students increased by 50% this year compared to previous years. Thirty-nine percent of graduate students, including law and medical school students, screened positive for anxiety, while 32% screened positive for depression.

Mental health disparities exist across race, gender, sexual orientation, and fields of study. The survey reported that women were more likely to report anxiety symptoms (42%) than men (32%). Mental distress was most prominent in low-income students, especially those identified as Latinx and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Forty-nine percent of gay/lesbian students and 59% of bisexual students screened positive for anxiety. Depression was prominent for students in the physical sciences, and anxiety was highest among biomedical research students.

Little to no access to science facilities, equipment, and resources contributed to heightened mental health issues. Finances and unstable living situations were additional factors indicated, as well. The move towards full remote work exacerbated mental health issues for some, too. Around 5% of graduate students who mentioned having difficulty adjusting to complete virtual instruction reported high anxiety rates above 60%.

Other studies provide further statistics that emphasize how the pandemic has impacted students’ well-being in higher education. The most concerning numbers indicate that 86% of students report concerns about their safety. Furthermore, 60% of students have shown that the pandemic has made it harder for them to access mental health services.

This seems like a lot of data talk. But I highlight these numbers to demonstrate that college students of all kinds face mental health challenges exacerbated by COVID-19 in different ways.

The degree to which students feel the severity of this impact rests on the capital (social, financial, intellectual, etc.) they had before the pandemic hit. Navigating this new normal where COVID-19 demands more out of our life requires extra support, including mentoring for a supportive community or individuals and new coping strategies.

If you seek a community to support you in your current academic/career challenges, pandemic-related or not, NAVCAP can help. We are a community that is here for you. As a student and a NAVCAP team member, being engaged in this work has helped me as a graduate student and as a thought partner in making this community and academia-related information accessible, helpful, and simplified.

I have found that online communities like NAVCAP can be most helpful in that they are wholesome. How? I can find many folks in a single space that may or may not have similar experiences as me. In this way, I get to tap into more information and knowledge than I had initially sought, from a diverse group of people that I would have never had access to had it not been for the online community.

It’s the best kind of mentoring pie. All in one and accessed in a one-stop-shop location. Versatility is crucial for me. I get to pick and choose what I want and don’t want out of a virtual mentoring platform; what I need and don’t need, too. These days, options are a luxury. So, when I’m presented with an opportunity to choose, I take it, especially when I know that the choice is intended to help me. I see this as a way of taking care of myself that does not add extra stress to my already stressful, busy life.

If you are a graduate student struggling at this time and/or are seeking support, I see you. I also invite you to explore if this mentoring route is beneficial for you.

Author: Eleanor Titiml,

Learning & Capacity Strategist, NAVCAP

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