A Mind of One’s Own: Promoting Mental Health among Grad Students
Recent years have seen the proliferation of detailed and often pained first-person accounts of graduate students and faculty who have confronted mental health issues during their professional training. Although academic working conditions don’t make higher education special among employment sectors, we do inhabit a culture in which mental health challenges can be dismissed as an inherent feature of “the life of the mind,” if they are brought up at all. At the same time, university administrators and counseling professionals struggle to provide a full suite of services for their campus communities—which is to say nothing of the precarious state of funding for mental health services generally.
Depending on their program and institution, graduate students in history might not find the support they need, especially if they pick up on cues from faculty and fellow students that real historians don’t face serious mental illness. This is a problem we addressed in fall 2015, in Purdue University’s required introductory course for history graduate students. One of us (Lauren N. Haslem) was a master’s student, the other (Jennifer L. Foray) led it as professor. Class discussions approached mental health awareness as one aspect of professionalization, rather than delving into therapeutic approaches that would require uncomfortable self-disclosure.
The introductory course’s new emphasis on professional standards, norms, and behaviors helped unveil often-unspoken dilemmas of academic culture.
Foray’s class was the first of a two-course sequence recently introduced to replace the historiography course required of all incoming graduate students. No longer simply a rite of passage focusing exclusively on historiography, methods, and conceptual approaches to the study of the past, the new seminar also familiarized students with the profession as it exists today in the United States. Haslem and seven other first-year graduate students surveyed theoretical questions and methodological debates, but also learned about the function of professional organizations, career diversity initiatives, and standards of professional conduct. Over the course of the semester, this new emphasis on professional standards, norms, and behaviors helped unveil some of the often-unspoken expectations and dilemmas of academic culture.
Since the course ended, both of us have realized that mental health featured prominently in class discussions about professional skill building, even if not explicitly phrased as such. Our talks about research and writing goals raised questions about how to keep sight of personal limits and limitations, both psychological and physical. Meditating on professional identity formation led to collective recognition of the prevalence, impact, and perpetuation of impostor syndrome. Foray disclosed her experiences, both in graduate school and in various stages of the tenure/post-tenure process. Here, she introduced Karen Kelsky’s extensive blog posts (The Professor Is In)—and recently published full-length book—on the subject. She also instituted a “no prefacing” rule in class discussions: neither she nor the graduate students were to qualify their comments and questions with prefatory statements such as “I might be wrong here.” This was an effort to quash impostor syndrome: abiding by this rule allowed everyone in the room to feel entitled to be there.
Detailing time-management strategies prompted more explicit conversation about how to recognize and implement self-care habits, however defined. Surveying the department’s many resources drew attention to the university’s counseling and mental health services, as well as the importance of peer networks. Our ongoing examination of professional behavior at meetings and conferences spurred us to consider the value of establishing boundaries between our personal and professional lives. In other words, professional skill training doubled to promote mental health awareness among graduate students. Addressing these issues in an introductory course proved especially timely, Haslem notes, as the demands of graduate school are many and the challenges difficult to anticipate.
Surveying departmental resources drew attention to the university’s counseling and mental health services.
Intentionally carving out space in the graduate curriculum for discussions about mental health resulted in several overarching gains. First, this approach created an environment in which mental health became a familiar and approachable topic. Students could make their concerns and struggles known, be it publicly or privately, and faculty could respond to those needs. Second, by opening this communication pathway, both parties could establish and articulate clear expectations, which helped mitigate confusion, frustration, and isolation on all sides. Finally, this approach directed students toward appropriate channels of assistance available at the university and in the larger community. Such frank discussions about mental health in an introductory graduate course helped promote the creation and maintenance of better boundaries, based on the recognition that faculty cannot and should not double as mental health professionals or therapists.
On reflection, the authors acknowledge that employing professionalization to promote mental health is not without significant challenges. Most obviously, it requires faculty and students to familiarize themselves with available resources so that they may knowledgably confront issues related to mental health. Moreover, this approach requires those involved to adjust their expectations and actions around graduate training. Foray realized the importance of carefully and explicitly considering her expectations and role as a gateway course instructor. Destigmatizing discussions of mental health and mental illness, for example, cannot promote the idea that all behaviors are healthy or productive. It was necessary to establish and enforce multiple boundaries, sometimes simultaneously: as an adviser to graduate students, as a professional historian interested in the ethics and implications of our scholarship, and as an individual equipped only with personal experiences of mental health issues and psychological counseling. Articulating expectations for professional as well as personal behavior was necessary, both in the classroom and in private consultations with students. It was impossible to expect students to learn by simply observing their professors’ interactions with one another.
By opening a communication pathway, students and professor could articulate clear expectations, mitigating confusion, frustration, and isolation.
An explicit focus on professionalization in an introductory course cannot fix institutional problems that may precipitate or exacerbate mental illness. Stress caused by tenuous funding sources, the inequitable distribution of labor and resources among colleagues, and the increasing expectations that faculty and graduate students alike should remain accessible and responsive 24 hours a day every day cannot be remedied solely with better time-management skills or by practicing yoga. Similarly, professionalization discussions, both inside and outside of graduate courses, cannot replace accepted forms of therapeutic intervention, such as counseling and medication. Indeed, there is no one solution to address mental health and illness; individual needs and resources vary. Rather, we offer this approach as one in a series of steps toward meeting the needs of our shared academic community. When viewed as such, professionalization seems a method by which to promote mental health among history graduate students.
Lauren N. Haslem is a PhD student in the program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. Jennifer L. Foray is an associate professor in the Department of History at Purdue University.
1. See, for instance, Jennifer Ruark, “In Academic Culture, Mental-Health Problems Are Hard to Recognize and Hard to Treat,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 26, 2010; Katherine Tam, “History Professor Pulls Back Curtain on Mental Health Issues,” UCnet, April 24, 2012; Gleb Tsipursky, “Teaching While Anxious,” Inside Higher Ed, May 8, 2015; Emma Pettit, “Stigma, Stress, Fear: Faculty, Too, Need Mental-Health Help,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 4, 2016.
2. The Graduate Assembly, “Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report,” (2014): 1–79, and for a recent study examining PhD students in Belgium, Katia Levecque, Frederik Anseel, Alain De Beuckelaer, Johan Van der Heyden, and Lydia Gisle, “Work Organization and Mental Health Problems in PhD Students,” Research Policy 46, no. 4 (2017): 868–79.
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