The competing tensions of coursework, teaching, and scholarship. The often isolating nature of conducting research. Feelings of inadequacy, tensions with advisors, and difficulty finding work-life balance. Graduate students face multifaceted challenges to their mental health and sense of well-being. A recent study in Nature Biotechnology reported 41 percent and 39 percent of graduate students scored in the moderate-to-severe range for anxiety and depression, respectively, as compared to 6 percent for each among the general population using the same scale.
Laura Monschau, Rackham’s embedded counselor from U-M’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), hears of these challenges every day in her interactions with students. We spoke with Monschau about the concerns that students bring to her and the resources offered by CAPS to help.
What are some of the prevalent topics and issues that you hear from graduate students?
Laura Monschau: Depression, anxiety, lack of motivation. In order for people to feel contentment, they need to have a balance of enjoying things and having meaning. And as a graduate student, they often feel like they don’t have either, because they have to delay doing the enjoyable things to work really hard, but they don’t necessarily have these immediate gains they can point to. They have to delay their gratification and meeting their goals for so many years, and that makes people more vulnerable. So we see the depression, the anxiety. We see rates like 69 percent of students saying they’re having difficulty sleeping, 70 percent or so saying they’re not satisfied with their body because they’re not able to exercise.
One of the main things I do is to help normalize feeling isolated, feeling like you’re having a hard time motivating, having doubts about your career, or being in the academy. That’s really more the norm, but nobody talks about that.
There are also advisor issues, those kinds of dynamics. And thoughts about the rest of their lives that they’ve put on hold. Do they want to live in a desired place near their friends and family? Do they want to have a baby? Do they want to get married? They might feel like they have to delay all of these other goals or like they can’t even put those on the radar.
There are also microaggressions that people are experiencing with regard to pronunciation, religion, race, and ethnicity. And that’s not just on campus, but even when going shopping or getting their car fixed, the daily interactions of life in the States for international graduate students, for example, or for people of color or members of the LGBTQ community. All of these layers of discrimination affect people. And we’ve seen in our research that the more you’ve experienced these things, the more you’re vulnerable for psychological distress.
When you speak with graduate students, do you think they’re generally aware that others might be struggling with these issues, as well?
LM: Absolutely not, and that really goes into imposter syndrome. Talking in broader strokes of what I see, students will say they feel that they don’t deserve to be here. They see others in their department or on campus who look so good because they’re seeing the personas of the other people, and they’re comparing the others’ personas to their own feelings of self-doubt and not feeling good enough. They feel like they’re the only ones struggling, and one of the main things I do is to help normalize feeling isolated, feeling like you’re having a hard time motivating, having doubts about your career, or being in the academy. That’s really more the norm, but nobody talks about that when they’re trying to get funding, that they might be having doubts about even wanting to do what they signed up to do.
What kind of resources do you and CAPS offer for students experiencing these feelings?
LM: There are different ways students can visit someone individually through CAPS. While the Union is being renovated, the CAPS main office is located in the Tappan Auxiliary Building, next to the Ross School. Rackham students can go there and schedule an initial consultation with a counselor. That’s a 30-minute initial consultation with someone who will make a decision about who they should see next. From there, students can expect to work with a counselor. As I’m an embedded counselor here at Rackham, students can also email me directly and either do the paperwork at CAPS beforehand or in my office during the initial visit. We uphold strict standards of confidentiality and will not release any information—or even confirm that a student has made an appointment or attended a session—without the student’s explicit permission.
We also offer a range of group and luncheon series. And CAPS actively works with communities through in-services and workshops. It’s really about building community among people who don’t have as much community, helping them to feel like they’re less marginalized. Occasionally, faculty members will attend events, and seeing that there are faculty who share their community membership is also really powerful. We have a huge diversity of identities among our counselors, and we’re really proud of that. So when I go out and do an educational outreach for a department, which I do a lot of, I will typically pair with someone whose identity is different than mine so we can be more representative.
Are there things you would recommend that students do for themselves that they might not typically hear?
LM: It’s not always the big stuff, but it’s how to take those small steps to improve your resiliency a bit. So, making sure you are eating and sleeping is important. But it’s also asking, “Am I connected to other people? Am I enjoying things? Is there something I’m looking forward to?” Making sure you have spiritual wellness. All of those spheres are part of making sure you’re in balance, because I think the nature of graduate student life often makes people feel out of balance.
What’s one thing you wish you would have known in graduate school?
LM: There are so many twists and turns that will happen in life, and you can only prepare so much. Graduate students feel like they have to have it all laid out. Even those tough things that happen can be beneficial in ways we can’t expect. I don’t like to dwell too much on talking about silver linings in my counseling, particularly when people are struggling, but I really do believe that. I spent so much of my time as a graduate student planning and thinking, “How do I get to this internship?” or “How do I get this and that?” and it turned out completely different than I expected. Life happens, and graduate school is just one chapter of that.
What drew you to this work?
LM: I’m pretty passionate, and have been since graduate school, about viewing mental health and mental health treatment as activism—I was drawn more from an activist lens at first than as a mental health provider. I’ve been at the University of Michigan for more than 20 years. I started out at the Sexaul Assault Prevention and Awareness Center for many years, where I did counseling and training, and a lot of advocacy work, and then later moved to CAPS. I feel like it’s always been activism one person at a time. It sounds a little corny, but I mean it deeply.
Please note: On the Rackham website, you can find additional resources, including contact information for Rackham’s Resolution Officer, Darlene Ray-Johnson; details on where to report bias, discrimination, or harassment; and connections to various student communities.