Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Opening the Dialogue on Mental Health in Grad School for MIAW

Inside Higher Ed's GradHacker blog posted about mental health yesterday in response to Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW).  Turley, who posted the blog, stated,
"I think that mental health issues are the biggest barriers to success among graduate students."
I have to agree.  I've stated on here numerous times that by the time we get to grad school, we are pretty much intellectually equal.  Time management and stress-management are the areas which either sink us or let us have success.  This is particularly true in times of high-stress such as comps!

I thought the post was well-done and brought up some important suggestions worthy of review.  And, since it is, MIAW and a large portion of this blog is devoted to helping those dealing with mental illness in graduate school, I thought I would tie this all together with a post about dialogue.

The suggestions Inside Higher Ed offered were mainly about dialogue.  I think this is an important point of note.  Why?  Well, as I posted about in "How to Talk to People with Mental Illness", a large part of the "puzzle" of "dealing" with the problems associated with mental illness are associated with stigma and a lack of awareness about resources.  I have been very open with my own struggles with bipolar disorder and how it has been the biggest challenge I have faced in grad school.  I have tried to show that most people deal with mental illness or face hardships associated with stress or anxiety in grad school whether it be prior to comps or specifically during the comps process.  Likewise, because I am a survivor of sexual assault and have also tried to be open about this, I have talked about the importance of being aware of the process of dealing with survivors and what comes "next" in the process of healing.  Most importantly, I have tried to open the dialogue on here and twitter in hopes that people would realize they aren't alone.  This was my most popular post this year.

I think people are starting to become aware on the blogosphere and on twitter of the reality of how prevalent mental illness is in grad school.  As I've said before, it's rather important to put this all into perspective.  I can think of few people who haven't seen a counselor.  And, in my opinion, most people who haven't seen one here, probably could have benefitted from seeing one at one time or another.  Whether it is just a "rough patch" or a legitimate disorder that needs to be diagnosed, the "treatment" is the same.  Thus, it doesn't matter what we call it.  Everybody's got something.  That's a thing I think we should emphasize.  While I deal with sometimes unique situations due to OCD, PTSD, and bipolar disorder, most of what I have been through is pretty relatable and standard grad school "fare" that is associated with stress and anxiety that MOST will experience in their time here.

That's why the GradHacker article is a good one, I think. It recommends three things:

1. "Graduate departments need to openly acknowledge the problem."2. "Academic advisors should receive training on preventing, recognizing, and addressing mental health issues in their students (and themselves too!)."3. "Graduate programs should offer (or even require) courses or workshops that teach yoga and mindfulness techniques."
Starting with number 1, I agree.  My department is not awful about this but there have been teachable moments here that I think have gone undiscussed.  In two instances, a grad student basically was a danger to themselves and another person.  I was the target of such a situation when a student basically became obsessed with me, stalked me, and then threatened to hurt themselves when I refused to help them do their homework. The student was eventually asked to leave the program for poor performance and the DGS reached out to this person.  He was more than helpful suggesting resources but the student either did not pursue them or did not get the preferred results.  In another instance, another student stalked a fellow cohort member, was a danger to herself, and the DGS admitted to WALKING her over to a hold.  Again, good for him.  He does look out for us.  However, in both instances, no more further discussion was called for.  These were moments the administration of the department could have used to bring us together, offer up resources, and possibly bring in a person from mental health to have a more open discussion.  Still, at least the administration hasn't ignored the problem here and is more than willing to LISTEN and help.  That's huge.

Number 2 is something I feel strongly about as a future academic and as a current grad student.  I do not doubt that my advisor is one of the best ones here as far as helping with this problem.  As I posted here, she has taken a personal interest in the unique problems facing female students trying to balance it all - school, life, and society's conflicting expectations. If I went to her looking for resources, I bet she would be able to help and would actively try.  However, I know others have not received the same level of support from other advisors or in other departments.  When a guy I was dating awhile ago admitted that the lack of sleep due to terrible lab hours was making him feel completely out of touch with reality, his advisor basically told him to suck it up.  We've talked since he graduated and got a job with a much better work-life-balance and he said that the last year here was the worst year of his life thus far.  The strangeness of being in a foreign country, having no time to even sleep or eat, and having no friends took its toll.  He now sees a therapist and is feeling much better.

I have talked about the need to be aware of resources for both general stress and anxiety and for sexual assault crisis.  We are faced with problems that our students bring us even as grad students.  I make myself aware of the mental health and counseling resources on campus as well as the sexual assault crisis resources.  This particular school has EXCELLENT resources.  If I was advising grad students in the first semester of grad school or teaching an introductory seminar, I would like start that first seminar or meeting off with a general overview of what stress is like in grad school, that it is "the norm" and that how you deal with it is what matters.  I wish more people did this.  The more open we are about the problem - not just in closed-door settings - the more likely we are to solve the problem.

In regards to number 3, I agree with the idea of offering mental health seminars or cohort meetings for first year grad students.  This is proactive.  If a counselor was brought in once every other week for drop-in meetings and open discussions with a cohort in a conference room somewhere, good techniques could be gained in dealing with stress and anxiety.  Likewise, students would not feel as isolated.  Eventually, if you manage to get through semester one, you will realize that everyone is dealing with the same damn thing.  But you have to get there first!

The counseling and mental health centers on campus offer a variety of stress-mangement, sexaul assault recovery, and mindfulness resorces here that I think are very valuable.  However, few are grad-student specific.  Because I am aware of stigma and the perceptions of undergraduates as well as my age, I am reluctant to join any group that is not grad-student specific. It would be a conflict of interest to have a student or future student in there.  But hey, at least some grad-specific things exist and there are sexual assault survivor groups, which is more than I can say for my undergraduate school.  And, there, everything cost a lot of money.  Here, 90% of these resources are free and if they aren't, they take insurance.  Indiana did not take any form of insurance, which was a huge barrier to poor grad students seeking treatment, I'm sure.

All in all, I look forward to having more dialogue on this blog in the future (in the comments) and on twitter.

Big takeaways that I think we should focus on is that we need to provide resources to students before things get hairy.  Provide the resources to deal with stress and anxiety first rather than just react to the problem.  And as future academics or current academics, we should be aware of what resources are available and work actively to smash stigma.


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