Supporting Graduate Students in Times of Stress

Graduate school can be emotionally challenging under normal circumstances—for example, across the nation, the rate of depression among graduate students is about six times higher than their non-grad student peers. Now add the extraordinary stresses of this past year, with the pandemic and widespread racial injustice looming large. What can mentors and graduate programs do to help?

There are a wide range of issues that may be in play.

Consider the potential sources of added academic stress for your students:

  • Inability to make research progress due to travel restrictions; reduced access to the laboratory; restrictions on working with human subjects; and closures of libraries, archives and other research facilities
  • Remote teaching, especially for novice teachers
  • Taking coursework remotely
  • Loss of undergraduate assistants that would normally help with research tasks
  • Worries about the impact of the pandemic on an already difficult job market
  • Challenges in working from home:  many graduate students live in shared spaces, and many have an inadequate home workspace, out-of-date computers, poor internet, and lack of privacy

Add to that the potential sources of non-academic stress:

  • Financial (difficulty paying for graduate school, food insecurity, homelessness)
  • Mental health (anxiety/depression, hospitalization, thoughts of self harm or suicide ideation)
  • Loss and grief and family illness (BIPOC students are more likely to be directly impacted by COVID-19)
  • Caregiving responsibilities (spouse/partner, children, other family members), including the oversight of distance learning for children
  • Relationship difficulties that worsen under pandemic stress (significant other, housemates/ roommates, peers/friends)
  • Emotional impacts of racist and violent incidents in the news, as well as increased risk of acts of racism and bias against our BIPOC students
  • Physical health (personal illness or injury, hospitalization or surgery, problems arising from lack of attention to routine appointments for care due to the pandemic)
  • Compounding effects of racial injustice/political climate
  • Isolation/ separation from family and friends due to pandemic (true for all students, but like to be especially severe for our international students)
  • Alcohol or substance use or abuse (alcohol use has increased during the pandemic)
  • Increased risk of acts of violence (domestic violence has increased during the pandemic)
  • Natural disasters affecting students or their families and friends (fire/flood/weather)

 

ACTIONS FOR MENTORS TO TAKE

 

What can you do as a mentor?  While it is tempting to carry on with ‘business as usual’—to the extent that you can in the context of pandemic-related restrictions—it’s important to be proactive in your role as a mentor and a leader, and not to wait for problems to just bubble up. Here are some tips.

Be consistent, caring and clear in your communication. Establish regular meetings if you have not done so already, with each student and possibly with your entire group if that is your normal practice. Also establish the best approaches to maintaining contact between meetings. Make it clear that you are open to talking about non-research topics such as strategies for coping with stress.

Normalize the fact that these are stressful times. Acknowledge the burdens that your students face. Devote some time in your meetings to check in with each other. There are plenty of ways to open a conversation without putting someone on the spot.  You can ask, for example, “What are you all doing to get out of the house? Have you found a new hobby?  What do you do to signal to yourself that work time is over and now it is time for a break?”

Model work-life integration Talk about what you do for stress relief, for dealing with caregiving responsibilities, for taking restorative time away from work. Too often we present to our students a persona of constant busy-ness and hard work without discussing the need to recharge. This is a good time to take those moments to share strategies.

Help your student set reasonable goals, but be flexible and forgiving. Work with your student to help them set achievable goals—some structure can really help all of us make progress during a pandemic when time seems slippery! The Graduate School’s Office of Professional Development workshops emphasize SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. However, if a student fails to meet their goal, adding blame and shame won’t help. Re-establish the goal through a conversation and begin again. If a deadline really is firm, such as an abstract or a grant deadline, make it clear in advance, and work backwards from the deadline to create a workable plan. 

Be compassionate if people are having trouble with completing their work. Reach out for an individual conversation. Some students are struggling with issues that they may or may not want to share with you.

Understand that a student’s priorities may shift. Your fantastically productive student of 18 months ago might need to devote their time to parenting now. Students can feel that their mentors are upset with them if they must prioritize other aspects of their lives over work. This is an excellent time to openly discuss and normalize that priorities shift as conditions demand, particularly during a pandemic.

Do not impose your own worries on your students.  Perhaps you need to show progress on your grant or you are coming up for tenure, and the pandemic has slowed you and your group down. Be aware of adding to your student’s stress, and keep the focus on those achievable goals. Find other opportunities to work through your own concerns, including with colleagues who can support your professional development, and give you advice for managing these issues.

Celebrate successes.  If a student has successfully passed an exam, submitted a paper or an abstract, written a chapter, gotten attention for their work—celebrate it! Make it known to your group or grad program. Encourage the student to do something special to reward themselves if you can’t celebrate in person.

Be aware that students may view admitting to mental health issues as stigmatizing. It can be challenging to destigmatize reaching out for help. Some really fruitful conversations  have come about when the faculty openly discuss how mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, and burnout, can plague faculty as well.

Recognize that you don’t need to be an expert in order to help.  Some mentors shy away from opening the door to discuss personal issues or to express their concern to a student because they feel unqualified to help—so instead of having a potentially uncomfortable conversation, they simply avoid it. However, as a mentor, authority figure, and the person with more power in this relationship, it’s important to proactively indicate that it is OK to be struggling and to talk about it. Below are resources that you can direct a student to, and people that you can consult yourself.

 

WHAT TO KEEP IN MIND WHILE MEETING WITH YOUR GRADUATE STUDENT

 

If you are meeting with a student who is under stress, it might be helpful to review this list:

  • Plan your meeting: make sure to address  mutual expectations while also giving space for your student to share any new developments or concerns
  • Remember the power dynamic: even if you view the relationship as egalitarian, your student may not
  • Communicate with colleagues and support offices when appropriate
  • Foster self-advocacy in the student to manage their academic, personal, and fiscal responsibilities
  • Call or email a resource referral with the student during a meeting, if appropriate
  • Call or email the people at the office to whom you are referring the student, such as the Dean of Students Office, to provide context about the student
  • Follow up with the student after a meeting to confirm what was discussed and to check that the student has followed through

 

WHO TO CONTACT WITH CONCERNS AND FOR ASSISTANCE

 

If a student is experiencing an emotional or psychological crisis, CCPH is available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days a year for mental health emergencies.

For non-life threatening situations, please call 413-545-2337 and follow the prompts to reach the on-call clinician. Please note that CCPH does not have the resources to make an in-person visit.

If it is an immediate life-threatening situation, call UMPD (413-545-2121) or 911.  The police can do an in-person wellness check and make arrangements for transport, if necessary.

When navigating complex/ multiple concerns or assistance with resource connections:

  • Dean of Students Office.  Katelyn Dreyer in the DOSO works specifically with graduate students and can provide support to both you and your students that are navigating difficulties. Please use the support request link unless it is an emergency.

For mental health/ clinical support / counseling / assessment services (many local to the Western MA area):

For financial assistance:

For food assistance:

Additional sources in the community for food assistance, help paying bills, and other free or reduced cost programs, including new programs for the COVID-19 pandemic (searchable by zip code):

 For conflict mediation:

For legal assistance / advice:

For technological needs:

For housing assistance:

Assistance for parents:

 

PROGRAM-LEVEL ACTIONS

 

It is important that the graduate program, as well as individual mentors, reinforce the messages of flexibility and concern for the students.

  • GPDs and department chairs can remind faculty of the principles above, and share the list of resources with both faculty and students.
  • Consider encouraging graduate faculty to offer SAT/FAIL grading in classes; faculty may announce the availability of this option and proactively encourage all students to take advantage of it (please refer to the policy passed by the Faculty Senate and distributed to GPDs in February 2021 for more details)
  • Offering social events for students and faculty is welcome, and are often most effective if they are built into regularly scheduled times (e.g., before and after seminars). It may be very difficult for graduate students to make time for events at an unusual time. Events with a theme (e.g., sharing strategies for time management during the pandemic) can sometimes be more appealing than an unfocused Zoom meeting.
  • Programs are likely to have more students taking extra time to finish their degrees, and should budget accordingly
  • GPDs might consider advertising drop-in hours on Zoom
  • Consider a brief survey of your students to identify major concerns, and be prepared to act on those concerns—or at least openly address them. Don’t collect survey data and then not address concerns.

 

Acknowledgements and further reading:

 

The authors of this page drew inspiration from the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan, and we gratefully acknowledge them.

(https://rackham.umich.edu/faculty-and-staff/supporting-graduate-students-during-stressful-times/).