4 changes could reduce grad student stress

About 24% of doctoral students have significant depression symptoms, and 17% have significant symptoms of anxiety—levels higher than those of the general population. (Credit: Getty Images)

Four types of changes could reduce mental health stress among graduate students, say researchers.

Graduate students suffer high rates of depression, anxiety, and mental stress, studies show—a situation that the pandemic made worse. But as campuses reopen and students return to their labs, now is the time to implement changes that can turn this around, say the researchers.

As reported in the journal Neuron, the recommended changes include:

  • Creating structure in the lab with deadlines, well-defined work hours, and short-term goals;
  • Encouraging students to set personal boundaries, such as creating time to exercise or care for their needs;
  • Mentoring and developing strong relationships;
  • Cultivating a safe and collaborative lab culture.

“Every person in a lab environment can be doing something to support graduate student mental health. You do not have to be a mental health professional to improve things,” says study lead author Meghan Duffy, a professor in the University of Michigan department of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Duffy is a disease ecologist who runs a 16-person lab that includes a lab manager, a technician, four postdoctoral scientists, four graduate students, and six undergraduates. She led the university’s Task Force on Graduate Student Mental Health, which aimed to find ways to improve students’ mental health in the summer of 2019. The task force’s work became all the more timely when COVID-19 struck.

About 24% of doctoral students have significant depression symptoms, and 17% have significant symptoms of anxiety—levels similar to that of medical students and resident physicians and higher than the general population, recent studies have shown. Then when the pandemic struck, like so many parts of society, graduate students saw these rates of mental health stress grow even higher.

This is one reason why it is important that good systems of communication and structure are put in place now as labs reopen, says coauthor Natalie Tronson, associate professor in the psychology department.

Tronson, who has a long-held interest in the effect of stress-induced depression on the brain, says sometimes when students move from a very structured undergraduate life to the independence and self-structure of graduate research, the adjustment is hard.

“People need structure, and they need to know: What should I be doing? What needs to be done? What are my deadlines?” she says. “But on the other hand, lab-based work does not fit in a tight structure. Science is not a 9-to-5 job, so mentors and students need to find that balance.”

Matching students with mentors, sometimes more than one mentor, and communicating are important, Duffy and Tronson say: Students need to know it is OK if an experiment fails. They need to know when they have gathered enough information. And they need to get feedback and set small deadlines to help them meet the larger ones.

The study’s third coauthor is from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Source: University of Michigan