The Challenge of Mental Health in Graduate School

By Bailey Keller and Angela Snyder

Declining mental health among graduate students is a silent epidemic. According to a recent Nature survey of 6,300 PhD students worldwide, ~36% report seeking help for anxiety or depression due to their PhD studies1. Commonly cited reasons for the PhD environment contributing to poor mental health were bullying and discrimination. The typical measures of success in academia also play a significant role in the decline of mental health, as standards are widely variable and do not necessarily reflect the amount of work and effort of the student. The endless list of struggles is not exclusive from one institution to another, but are unique to graduate students. In fact, the percentage of graduate students who reported struggling with anxiety-related symptoms is much greater than the average of 18.1% of adults affected in the United States2.

Fortunately, there are resources available at Penn State College of Medicine as well as outside advocates and organizations. The Office for Professional Mental Health (PMH)3 at the College of Medicine offers free counseling for all students, and providers are currently holding sessions virtually. The PMH website also provides useful mental wellness information, and links to outside resources. Active Minds, an international organization with a chapter on our campus, works with PMH to hold events and help to destigmatize the topic of mental health on campus. If a student prefers an outside provider, one option is online counseling through services such as BetterHelp. This service offers a flexible way to communicate with a counselor matched to the user based on an initial survey. Communication with the counselor can be done in a web browser or smartphone app, and can be via messaging, live chats, phone calls, and/or video conferencing. There is also an option to keep journal entries and share them with a counselor if desired. Graduate students who are enrolled in the United Student Health Insurance Plan can access BetterHelp for free4.

There are also many sources available online, and one unique example of this is academic Twitter, which connects individuals in all levels of academia. Dr. Michael Kraus, a junior investigator at Yale, shared a document on Twitter called “A Healthy PhD” that he created in collaboration with his lab group. The purpose was to create a better work-life balance with a focus on self-care. Kraus writes, “…taking care of yourself and those around you is more important than the work you are doing to pursue your PhD. This is true both because without your health you cannot perform your studies well and because your health, self-worth, and wellbeing matters in and of itself.”5 He emphasizes the well-being of his lab members and serves as a wonderful example for an ideal and supportive lab environment.

Also on Twitter, advocates such as Fay Lin (@xiaofei_lin), Dr. Zoë Ayers (@ZJAyers), and Dr. Susanna L. Harris (@SusannaLHarris) consistently promote mental health in graduate school and beyond. Fay Lin is currently a PhD candidate in biochemistry at UCLA. She is very vocal about mental health stigma in academia, and highlights what is toxic about the culture and what is needed for change. She also provides words of encouragement for those who are currently struggling.

Dr. Susanna L. Harris earned her PhD in microbiology and immunology. She founded PhD Balance6, which is an online community for graduate students and others in academia to connect and share their stories. PhD Balance also provides posts on a wide range of topics, as well as weekly webinars (which Fay Lin cohosts!). The site also provides other tools to help manage mental health in academia.

Dr. Zoë Ayers earned her PhD in physical chemistry. In addition to her full-time career, she creates posters about mental health in academia including a series on “Mental Health During Your PhD”. All posters are free to download from her website7 and include many helpful tips specific to PhDs. Further, Dr. Ayers also created the #100voices project, which highlights “mental health journeys” told by 100 researchers. These stories are also available on her website8. Reading these first-hand experiences with mental health can help someone know they are not alone and may also help the reader learn more compassion by being aware of what peers are going through. These stories help to fight the stigma surrounding mental health struggles in research.


Figure 1. Percentage distribution of full-time faculty in degree-granting institutions by race/ethnicity and sex in Fall 2017 (National Center for Education Statistics)10.

Everyone goes through tough times and the stress and circumstances of graduate school may exacerbate negative feelings. It is necessary to acknowledge that different student populations, particularly Black, other people of color (POC), and women, are disproportionately affected by mental health struggles in graduate school. This is partially due to the low levels of diversity that prevail in graduate school enrollment. A report from The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education notes that of the 1,869,845 students enrolled in U.S. graduate schools, only about 10.2 percent are African American9. This gap that exists with minorities gaining entry and positions in academia is further illustrated by Figure 1 which shows that the majority of higher-ranking positions, such as professorship and associate professorship, are filled by people who are white and male10.

Trends also indicate that both women and POC are more likely to leave academia, a phenomenon commonly referred to as the “leaky pipeline”. According to a post on the blog Two Women Scientists, “As women and POC leave not only academia but STEM to find environments where they feel heard and uplifted, the furtherance of science and exploration is undoubtedly stymied.”11 This unfortunate loss within the academic community leads to the continued lack of support systems and the increase in marginalization and isolation, negatively impacting the mental health of current minority students.

Other burdens faced by minority groups also significantly affect mental health in graduate school. Aya Waller-Bey, a Ph.D. student in Detroit, Michigan, relays from her personal accounts in the Hechinger Report that, “If you’re a black, first-generation college student from an under-resourced community, you belong to one of the most historically underrepresented groups on campus. The academic pressures to perform well in the classroom, publish and join a promising research lab – combined with the strains of additional financial, familial and racial stressors – are a formula for mental collapse.”12

Fortunately, there are emerging resources such as Black Scientists Matter and the podcast Blk + in Grad School. Black Scientists Matter creates posts allowing scientists to talk about their unique academic paths and provides resources for assisting future scientists with their journeys13. Blk + in Grad School is hosted by a graduate student named Allanté and “shares stories and resources to help women and POC to and through the grad school journey”14. Graduate Women in Science (GWIS) is another organization promoting success of women in scientific fields. GWIS is an international organization, with a chapter on the Penn State College of Medicine campus.

Although we have a long way to go, it is fortunate that the issue of mental health in graduate school is becoming more well-known. There are a growing number of resources available for students with previously-overlooked struggles. It is important to continue the conversation of mental health in graduate school and to find better ways to make the academic environment supportive and inclusive for everyone.


If you are in crisis or need immediate support, please reach out to:

Penn State Crisis Line (24/7): 877-229-6400

Crisis Text Line (24/7): Text “LIONS” to 741741


This post was written by Bailey Keller and Angela Snyder, two neuroscience graduate students in Dr. Yuval Silberman’s lab. Bailey and Angela are currently the President and VP, respectively, of Active Minds at Penn State College of Medicine.


Sources cited:


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