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Nearly a quarter of graduate students at the University of Michigan experience serious mental health challenges, according to a recent study. Untreated depression, anxiety, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts; these limit students’ academic performance and career outcomes, but beyond that, they reduce their quality of life. And far from an outlier, the U-M study is part of a national trend that shows approximately half of all graduate students experiencing psychological distress, with a higher prevalence of mental-health problems than the general highly educated population.

In response to this emerging crisis, Rackham announced the creation of a Graduate-Student Mental Health Task Force in August 2019. Spearheaded by Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) professor Meghan Duffy, the task force will identify opportunities to better support graduate student mental health at the individual, program, and institutional levels. In order to effectively meet its aims, the task force has to bring people from a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences to the table, from faculty and staff to mental health professionals. But few voices are as essential to the conversation as those of graduate students themselves.

A Responsibility and an Opportunity

Now a fifth-year joint Ph.D. candidate in social work and psychology, Janelle Goodwill has made mental-health issues a focal point of her research since she first arrived at U-M in 2013 to pursue a master’s degree in social work. Studying depression and suicide, particularly among Black men and young people of color, Goodwill seeks to bring the experiences of and challenges faced by marginalized people into the light of scholarship, where they have long been underrepresented. She also served as project manager for a social media-based mental health intervention for young Black men.

When her advisor, Professor of Social Work and Curtis Center Director Daphne Watkins, joined the task force, she knew Goodwill’s expertise and interests were a perfect fit and passed her information to Duffy.

“As soon as I met with Megan, I realized the task force’s work was something I was committed to doing,” Goodwill recalls. “It was encouraging to know that Rackham, and the university, were trying to be proactive about such a major issue. I’ve always felt a sense of responsibility to help graduate students, especially graduate students of color, and this seemed like an ideal opportunity to ensure that our voices were included.”

Janelle Goodwill

Goodwill observed the experiences of people from marginalized groups are often left out of research on mental health, something she hopes to change through her work.

Like Goodwill, Sara Abelson has committed much of her career to improving mental health for students in higher education. Receiving her master’s in public health from U-M in 2008, she spent the next eight years working with Active Minds, an organization dedicated to addressing mental health on college campuses around the United States. As vice president for student health and well-being, Abelson worked directly with students and administrators to improve campus support for mental health.

The more she worked with institutions around the country, the more Abelson realized the need for additional data on how policies and practices within higher education impacts student mental health, and so she found her way back to U-M. Now a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education in the School of Public Health, Abelson studies how the many intersecting facets of life in higher education—institutional policy, racial climate, support for LGBTQ students, accessibility for students with disabilities, sense of belonging, and social support, among others—contribute to a student’s mental health and, ultimately, their academic success.

As co-investigator and diversity, equity, and inclusion projects lead for the Healthy Minds Study, which collects data on student mental health and the most effective ways to invest in it at colleges and universities nationwide, Abelson has met with many people involved with student mental health at U-M, including Duffy. When Duffy first went on sabbatical from EEB to lead the task force, she asked Abelson to come with her.

“There are many reasons I joined,” Abelson explains. “It’s an amazing group of people who are committed to thinking about and improving student mental health. It’s also an exciting opportunity to translate my research into practice at an institutional level. In research, it’s easy to call out what you think is needed, but it’s harder to sit at the table and actually figure out how to make it happen.”

Sara Abelson

In tackling mental health from a systemic perspective, Abelson hopes to see the task force positively impact the entire graduate student community.

Only the Beginning

As the task force organized for its first year, it divided into three teams tackling mental health at the individual student, academic program, and institutional levels. With her longstanding interest in mental health among college students, coupled with her lived experience as a graduate student, Goodwill joined the student team. She and her colleagues are working to develop recommendations around subjects that impact graduate students on a daily basis, like ways to improve their relationships with their advisors and better manage work-life balance.

“We ultimately want to offer students strategies for improving their mental health and well-being from the moment they step on campus,” Goodwill says. “We know grad students experience unique stressors, especially if they come from marginalized communities. There’s a lot universities can do to make students feel more welcome and supported.”

Goodwill also points out that while many resources for student mental health already exist, the stigma around seeking that help remains a barrier for many.

“This task force is designed to offer recommendations to students, but that only works if they are willing to use them,” she says. “We want to help bring down those barriers, and provide students with resources that describe how and when to seek help.”

While Goodwill focuses on helping individual students, Abelson’s background with institutions of higher education and experience with the most recent data on campus climate and mental health saw her join the task force’s institutional team.

Abelson’s team is looking at university-wide systems that often directly impact graduate student mental health, including graduate student leave of absence policies and how Rackham defines and supports program excellence.

“Schools significantly shape every aspect of student life,” Abelson says. “We know in the public health field that if you work at the system level, you have the opportunity to impact everyone in a population. Working with Rackham across all graduate programs at the university is an exciting opportunity to move the needle on mental health to benefit every graduate student in a way that will last.”