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Supporting Graduate Students During Stressful Times

Graduate school was already challenging and stressful for many students, and the events of the past few months have exacerbated existing stressors and added new ones. At the same time, faculty and staff are living through many of the same challenges, with many stretched thin and exhausted. This means that, at a time when graduate students are most in need of attentive mentoring and support from graduate programs, the people who would provide that support might, understandably, be less able to do so. To try to help bridge this gap, the Graduate Student Mental Health Task Force has created this resource to summarize the major stressors students are facing, and to provide guidance on principles, approaches, and strategies that mentors and graduate programs can use as they support students during these extremely stressful times.

Prepared by the Mental Health Task Force.

Principles and Approaches Graduate Programs and Mentors Can Use to Support Students

Communicate Clearly, Regularly, and with Compassion

  • The top recommendation in the American Council on Education’s guidelines on mental health, higher education, and COVID-19 is “ensure that communication is consistent, caring, and clear.” Similarly, Active Minds recommended, “Develop a clear, comprehensive communications plan that addresses student concerns, particularly academic and mental health needs.”
  • It’s important to check in on graduate students regularly, and for mentors and grad programs to really mean it when asking a student how they’re doing and if there’s anything they need. Ideally, a student’s primary mentor should have consistent, personalized contact and check-ins with students. In addition, the graduate program director, graduate program coordinator, and/or someone else on behalf of the graduate program should strive to have an open (virtual) door policy, making it clear that students can approach them about concerns. With both of these forms of outreach, it is important that the contact not seem formulaic or cursory. For graduate students, knowing someone cares about their well-being goes a long way; given students’ widely disparate experiences, individualized outreach is key.
  • We recommend creating a clear plan for communicating—for example, a mentor might set up weekly check-ins with each student, and a department might send a weekly newsletter. We also recommend sharing your communication plan with students so they know what to expect and when to expect it. This will also serve as a commitment on the part of mentors and departments.
  • For mentors, we strongly recommend developing mentoring plans with each student, and updating ones that were previously developed; the templates available on Rackham’s mentoring page begin with a section on communication.
  • Students also expect and depend on department and unit administrators to be in regular communication and to acknowledge the challenges students are facing. For example, some students may take silence or a slow response to many of the pivotal events of this year (e.g., the killing of George Floyd) as tacit acceptance of the status quo or a lack of endorsement of moving towards anti-racist policies and procedures.
  • As we approach fall semester, we also recommend that graduate programs survey graduate students to find out about their needs, concerns, and barriers to success. However, we also emphasize that surveying students and then not responding causes harm; as programs develop plans to survey their students, they must also develop a plan for how to respond to issues raised by students.
    1. Possible things to ask about include food or housing insecurity; financial concerns; technology, ergonomic, and other resource-related barriers to safely and effectively working remotely; concerns related to fall teaching, research, and coursework; needs related to caring for children, elders, or others; and, concerns and ideas regarding department climate.
    2. Alternatively, departments can keep the survey more open-ended, asking students to indicate how they are doing and what the department/program can do to support them at this time.

Follow Up If You Have Concerns About a Student

In some cases, a student will indicate they are not okay, or something in the interaction will leave the mentor (or whoever is checking in on the student) worried things might not be okay. In other cases, a student might not respond at all.

If you have concerns about a graduate student:

Proactively Build in as Much Flexibility as Possible, Including for Funding, Resources, and Decisions Pertaining to Students, and Communicate This Clearly and Early

  • William Lopez recently noted, “This semester is about compassion, forgiveness, empathy, flexibility, and humanity. Model it as a professor and as a person. It’s the only way to create a positive learning environment amid the chaos.”
  • Programs should work with graduate students to develop a mutually agreeable plan for activities including research, teaching, and learning that is consistent with the guidelines of the school or college and UMOR. When developing these plans, students should be offered as many options and as much flexibility as possible. In all cases, programs should respect student privacy and maintain confidentiality of a student’s individual circumstances.
  • Programs should have internal conversations about expectations of graduate students; expecting students to produce the same number of publications or other products from their dissertation research will almost certainly require extra time in graduate school for many students, which will exacerbate inequalities, including those associated with parenting and other caregiving responsibilities and type of research (e.g., computational research vs. lab-based research). Thus, programs should have conversations about how to adjust expectations to account for the current situation.
  • Departments may also need to review finances to consider whether/how they might be able to support students for a longer time to degree, to reduce the amount of stress and strain on students, especially if they are expected to complete the same amount of work during this period.
  • Students should have multiple options for reporting issues or concerns, and those options should be clearly communicated to students. This should include multiple options within a department, as well as information about Rackham’s Resolution Office (rackresolutionofficer@umich.edu).

The Most Marginalized Students and Populations Should Be Given Special Consideration

  • When making department decisions (about the need to adjust program expectations, teaching and lab work, when to host department events, etc.), especially consider the impact on the most vulnerable and marginalized students in your program, and make sure their needs are not being overlooked.
  • Students are facing new expenses (e.g., related to technology and other supplies needed for remote teaching, learning, and scholarship) at a time when financial strain is particularly acute. Departments should create mechanisms where students do not need to pay for something and then get reimbursed; rather, a mechanism should be established where the necessary supplies are purchased directly and then shipped to the student.

Develop Mechanisms and Programs for Maintaining and Building Community for Students, Especially Ensuring That Incoming Cohorts Have Opportunities to Build Community

  • Community building is important for all students, but particular care should be paid to incoming cohorts. Much of the cohort-building that occurs through planned events and spontaneous interactions will be very different this year.
  • Incorporate community building and connection opportunities into required events and formal department business; many students do not have availability to participate in optional events at this time, so these activities should be incorporated into existing structures (e.g., a required first year seminar course).
  • When developing these events, remember that some students are parents or have other caregiving responsibilities; prioritize their schedules and availability when determining event times.
  • There are staff members dedicated to helping academic units and departments create programming to build well-being and connection. Start by filling out this form: Consultations and Presentations in Support of Student Well-Being, or by contacting Paul Artale in Rackham.
  • Consider using existing department seminar time slots for community building activities some weeks, as opposed to traditional seminars.
  • Provide socialization opportunities that are an alternative to the ‘work and drink’ culture that is common in graduate school. Students who are not comfortable with such events and spaces tend to feel left out and not at home in grad school.
  • While we need to recognize that some students will not be able to participate in Friday evening events, and the importance of not having all of these be drink/alcohol-focused, it is also valuable to institutionalize fun on Friday evenings, as a way to signal that it’s okay to stop working and to set the tone for a weekend that is leisurely but not lonely. However, departments should refrain from using terms like “Virtual Happy Hour” as it could be isolating for students who do not drink alcohol for personal, cultural, and/or spiritual reasons.
  • Finally, if a graduate course will be largely asynchronous, instructors should consider whether it might be possible to include an optional synchronous component to allow for more interactions with fellow students.

Ensure Students Know About Different Options for Receiving Therapy and Other Mental Health and Wellness Care

Additional Resources for Supporting Students

  • NCID and The Steve Fund have partnered to produce a video toolkit related to supporting the well-being of students of color
  • Help, Empower, Affirm, and Love (H.E.A.L.), a compilation of resources by J.C. Garcia, aimed at supporting a variety of mental health and other life needs

Overview of Major Stressors Graduate Students Are Currently Facing

Financial Strain

  • Many students are experiencing acute financial strain (more data). One sign of this is that, in March and through spring, more students needed access to Rackham’s emergency funds. Also, Healthy Minds and ACHA report that financial stress, a known predictor of student mental health, has been significantly affected by the pandemic: two-thirds of students report their financial situation has become more stressful. Roughly one-third of students report that their living situation changed as a result of the pandemic.
  • In some cases, the financial strain was associated with needing to move, including to help take care of loved ones elsewhere, to receive support taking care of children or other dependents, or as a result of safety concerns related to their living situation.
  • Some students with GSI, GSSA, and GSRA positions can no longer rely on their units offering those positions (at all or at comparable fractions); these students find themselves in a precarious position going into the Fall.
  • Moreover, some students usually work additional jobs (sometimes multiple places) in order to make ends meet; many of these jobs are no longer available, meaning these students (and, in some cases, their families) face food and housing insecurity.
  • International students, who cannot readily be employed off-campus, may not be able to find employment to support themselves this year; at the same time, they may have family members who are more in need of financial support due to the economic consequences of the pandemic.
  • In addition to these acute strains, some graduate students report more chronic forms of financial strain predating the pandemic, including food insecurity (more info specific to U-M students) and supporting family members. The pandemic has only exacerbated such strains. Notably, some graduate students relied heavily on food provided by campus events (including those hosted by Rackham Graduate School) to meet their food needs; these events are no longer happening, worsening food scarcity.

Students Are Experiencing Loss and Grieving

  • Students have lost economic, academic, and professional opportunities, with all eight dimensions of well-being potentially impacted. As noted in Harvard Business Review’s article, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief,” students are experiencing a loss of normalcy and connections, economic fears and uncertainty, and also a loss of a sense of safety.
  • On top of this, some students are grieving loved ones lost to COVID-19. Communities of color—especially Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities—have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, meaning students from those communities are especially likely to have lost loved ones to COVID-19.
  • In addition, some students may be reminded of past trauma and/or loss associated with racism and police brutality within their communities and among their family and friends.
  • Student academic progress has also been dramatically impacted in many cases, as a result of being unable to access labs, libraries, field sites, archives, or other places necessary to do their work, but also because living through a pandemic and a national reckoning with systemic racism has understandably meant less ability to focus on work.
  • In addition to the impacts mentioned above, the need to socially distance has impacted students in myriad ways, including an inability to travel to see loved ones, the cancellation of conferences, workshops, and other events, needing to teach remotely, loss of opportunities to mentor the next generation of scholars (e.g., through summer programs), loss of internships, and an inability to gather in person with their peers.

A Sense of Isolation and a Lack of Community

  • Building on the previous point: many people are feeling very isolated. While virtual connections help, and some people have been able to take part in safer, socially distanced outdoor gatherings, many people are having dramatically fewer interactions than they used to, and/or are missing key types of interactions that were important to their well-being. This includes connections with others in their graduate programs, including informal interactions that happen when we all share a physical work space.
  • At the same time, other people aren’t more isolated than they already were; instead, the pandemic has highlighted how extremely isolated they already were. Notably, 56% of Michigan graduate students reported feeling “very lonely” over the past 12 months, according to the 2018 NCHA survey and 42% screened positive on the UCLA Loneliness scale on the 2020 NCHA survey (done prior to the pandemic and move to remote learning).

Remote Teaching or Learning Is Preferable or Even Necessary in Many Cases, but Also Hard

  • Some students find it very difficult to stay engaged in coursework when classes meet remotely, and this can be especially challenging for courses that meet asynchronously.
  • Similarly, some GSIs find teaching in person much more rewarding and easier to navigate (including because it is easier to keep students engaged).
  • Many students complete in person internships as a key part of their graduate training, but such internships are currently rare. This means students are losing the ability to fully engage with people at internship sites, and with concerns that these internships will be viewed as less meaningful when they are on the job market.
  • There has been substantial anxiety among graduate students about whether they will be required or pressured to teach in person or to take a class in person.

Household Tensions Have Been Acute

  • For many students, especially those who live with multiple roommates, there are tensions related to differences in how people are engaging with the world; if one person is not socially distancing, that puts everyone at greater risk. Especially as things reopen (and cases increase locally), some students will have concerns about whether their exposure is being increased by someone they are living with.
  • In addition to epidemiological issues related to COVID-19, some students now find themselves in unsafe living arrangements for other reasons (e.g., domestic abuse). LGBTQ+ students may be at particular risk (see here and here and here). As summarized by the Trevor Project, “Among LGBTQ youth, only one-third experience parental acceptance, with an additional one-third experiencing parental rejection, and the final one-third not disclosing their LGBTQ identity until they are adults (Katz-Wise et al., 2015). LGB young adults who report high levels of parental rejection are eight times more likely to report attempting suicide and six times more likely to report high levels of depression (Ryan et al., 2009). Unsupportive environments may result in increased dysphoria, particularly among transgender and/or nonbinary youth, as some may need to hide their authentic selves to maintain safety. Furthermore, LGBTQ youth report greater rates of sexual, psychological, and physical abuse than their straight/cisgender peers (Baams, et al., 2018; Friedman et al., 2011). Intimate partner violence is also more prevalent in the LGBTQ community, including among youth and young adults (Calton et al., 2016). As such, some home environments may pose serious risks to LGBTQ mental and physical health.”
  • Even in less extreme situations, people are spending much more time with other household members than they normally would, and navigating an ever-changing landscape as regulations change and things re-open (and potentially shut down again). This increases tensions and stress.

Graduate Students with Caregiving Responsibilities Are Now Facing an Even More Stressful Juggle Than Before, with Challenging Decisions Related to Daycare, Schools, Etc.

  • Many parents of school-aged children (and younger) currently lack childcare, or have only partial childcare. Unfortunately, some daycares have closed for good, and most others are operating at reduced capacity. When K-12 schools reopen in the fall, many (including Ann Arbor Public Schools) will be fully online, meaning children will be at home and in need of assistance with schoolwork.
  • Moreover, as things begin to reopen, parents will face stressful decisions about whether to send children to school or daycare, needing to balance many competing factors as they make those decisions.
  • A recent New York Times piece summarized this with: “In the COVID-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job.” Mothers of young children are likely to be especially impacted.
  • A more complete summary of the challenges currently faced by academic parents (including graduate student parents) is available here.

Other Challenges Associated with Working from Home

  • Even aside from the challenges associated with interpersonal relationships, many students are currently working under stressful conditions, including poor ergonomics (e.g., working at a dining room table or ironing board desk) and lack of access to essential resources for working effectively (e.g., reliable laptop, high speed internet, webcam, printers, copiers, and access to software on university computers).
  • Many students lack the space and quiet to do the deep, reflective thinking necessary for graduate-level training. They also lack the structure that our normal routines provide, which can make it harder to make progress.

Systemic Racism, and a National Reckoning with Racism, Have Caused Additional Stressors, Especially for Students of Color. This Is on Top of Additional Stressors That Result from COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impact on Black and Brown Communities.

While recent racial tensions and COVID-19 have exacerbated stress for many students who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), it is also important to note that, for some BIPOC students at Michigan, the racial tensions they have experienced over the past few months are not necessarily new to them—many have been experiencing these their entire lives.

Visa Stress for International Students, as a Result of COVID-19-Related Travel Disruptions, the June Executive Order, and the July Preliminary Announcement from Ice

  • Some students are currently unable to return to the United States because of pandemic-associated visa and travel disruptions.
  • The June Executive Order restricting various visas has added additional stress and uncertainty for international students.
  • In addition, the current challenges with travel and obtaining visas means that many international students currently in the United S are unable to travel home to see loved ones.
  • The need for new I-20s to be mailed to students abroad means that these important documents risk getting lost or delayed in the mail in places where postal service isn’t always reliable or accessible.
  • Fortunately, the preliminary announcement from ICE about online study eligibility has been revoked, but it created major uncertainty and stress for many international students, and further emphasized the precarious situation many students find themselves in.

Students Are Navigating Internal and External Pressures Related to Their Research and Coursework, While Also Facing Shrinking and Upended Career Prospects

  • Some students are feeling pressure (either from mentors/graduate programs, or internal pressure) to return to the lab/studio/office and/or to overwork to make up for lost time.
  • Major delays in the ability to do research (for a variety of reasons) means some will need more time to complete graduate school—but graduate programs should also have more internal conversations about how to better support students, as discussed more in the section with recommendations for grad programs.
  • Conversely, some students feel pressure to graduate as soon as possible, out of a concern that jobs will become increasingly scarce.
  • Overall, many students are in a position where it has been extremely difficult to make progress towards a degree, but also where it feels like there will be even more intense competition for jobs in the near future.

Challenges Associated with Accessing Work Environments

Students who commute via public transportation might not feel comfortable taking buses, especially if there are not requirements for masks or limits on the number of people who are allowed on board at one time. However, many students do not have other options for getting to campus, due to a lack of a personal vehicle, an inability to afford parking, and/or a lack of access to accessible parking options.

Challenges Associated with Accessing Healthcare

Students who are now in a different state or country might find it more difficult to access healthcare, including tele-medicine and tele-therapy.

Faculty and Staff Are Struggling as Well, Facing Many of the Same Stressors That Graduate Students Are

As mentioned in the introduction to this document, we recognize (and know personally!) that many faculty and staff are struggling as well. This is a normal response to everything that is going on, but also means that some might have less of an ability to mentor and support students right now, at a time when students are often in need of greater support.

Finally, All the “Regular” Stressors Facing Students Didn’t Go Away. While There Are Many New/Heightened Issues, the Old Ones Are Still There and Having an Impact. These Include:

  • Feelings of being an imposter or of not belonging
  • General stress and anxiety; looking for tools, skills, and practices of mindfulness and resilience
  • Stress associated with departmental climate and culture
  • Stress associated with meeting departmental milestones in a timely fashion
  • The model of having students pay out of pocket and then get reimbursed is a major financial strain for many students; while students are less likely to face this challenge based on work-related travel in coming months, it is more likely to crop up in other areas (e.g., needing a tablet or webcam for teaching, books that cannot be accessed remotely, etc.)
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