You are here

Three Ways to Cope With Mental Illness in Grad School

UL Grad School -- 04/10/2018


Maintaining good mental health in graduate school can be tough. Stress and anxiety can take hold as we struggle with deadlines and meetings with our advisors. Past trauma can flare up too during high-intensity moments (and every step in between).

A recent study at the University of Flanders in Belgium discovered that one-third of their PhD students were at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder, such as depression or anxiety. Another study, performed by researchers at Nature Biotechnology, declared a “crisis” for mental health in graduate schools around the nation, reporting that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population.

Whether you’re a student or a professor, someone struggling with mental health or not, remember this isn’t something that affects everyone the same, and many of your colleagues may be dealing with challenges of their own.

While the best piece of advice is to seek help, here are three tips to help you maintain good mental health in grad school.

1. Find a Mentor Who Works With You

In the Nature Biotechnology study, half of the students surveyed already struggling with mental health reported not getting adequate support for their emotional wellbeing from professors and/or advisors. In grad school, a mentor is an incredible ally, but not everyone will find someone who is a perfect fit. And it’s important to remember that one person cannot be all things. In grad school especially, we need many mentors.

If you’re struggling to find a mentor on campus, don’t give up. Expand your search. Many professional organizations, in and out of your field, offer ways for students to find mentors and the support they need to succeed. It may be more electronic than face-to-face, but at least you’ll have someone with experience mentoring who can offer you a more personalized level of emotional and professional support.

2. Balance Your Work and Personal Life

We know — easier said than done. But a graduate student’s work-life balance (especially when it’s more like work/work/work-life balance as you juggle classes, research, work, and your personal life) is crucial. You may simply need to refocus, or you may need some time to center yourself and rethink your priorities.

A bit of self-care can go a long way and, while it may sound like you’re putting off the work you have to do, a good break can make your work that much more productive — and help you return to your research and/or writing with a fresh mind that’s ready to take on any task.  

3. Don’t Ignore the Stress Monster

Stress and graduate school are so commonly discussed together that even comics regularly joke about it. But while stress and anxiety may be an inevitable part of grad school, ignoring the warning signs is all too common — as we continuously struggle to write one more page, sign up for one more professional development workshop, or do that one extra favor for our colleague we know could take us over the edge.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, if you’re experiencing any of these warning signs, realize that you need to stop and take note:

  • Withdrawal — Loss of interest in social activities or others

  • Drop in functioning — An unusual drop in functioning at school, work, or social activities

  • Problems thinking — Problems with concentration, memory, or logical thought and speech

  • Increased sensitivity — Heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells, or touch

  • Apathy — Loss of initiative or desire to participate in any activity

  • Feeling disconnected — A vague feeling of being disconnected from oneself or one’s surroundings

  • Illogical thinking — Unusual or exaggerated beliefs about personal powers to understand meanings or influence events

  • Nervousness — Fear or suspiciousness of others or a strong nervous feeling

  • Unusual behavior – Odd, uncharacteristic, or peculiar behavior

  • Sleep or appetite changes — Dramatic sleep and appetite changes or decline in personal care

  • Mood changes — Rapid or dramatic shifts in feelings

If you find you’re struggling, there are professional and student-run organizations on campus dedicated to helping students find the mental health resources they need. If you know someone struggling, show empathy and understanding to their situation and offer help them find these resources. We’re all in this together, and the best thing we can do is to be there for one another every step of the way.

Interested in learning more about promoting positive mental health? Join us for “Grad School is Hard on Mental Health” on April 11. We’ll be providing a free meal and a good discussion led by the Department of Counselor Education about managing our mental health in grad school and beyond.