Why faculty should care about student mental health welfare and how faculty can help.
In the visible and vocal wings of STEMM, communities in academic institutions have strived to and struggled to cope with the growing mental health crisis. Numerous think pieces have contemplated how this crisis is getting worse throughout U.S. graduate schools, often citing how graduate students are six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety when compared to the general public. This epidemic is indiscriminate to age, geographical location, field of study, and degree level, though each combination of variables presents unique challenges to be addressed. Across countless institutions, administrators have held task forces, focus groups, wellness lectures, and presented recommendations to department heads and regents. Meanwhile, students of all degree types have organized in unions, held demonstrations, and commiserate by connecting through articles and memes. But key players with stakes in this mental health crisis are seemingly less loud, often hidden or even missing entirely: what are faculty up to in this epidemic?
Sweeping institutional reforms in academia are difficult to achieve for multitudes of governmental, societal, and institutional pressures. Others, through open disagreement or through silently upholding status quos, are reticent to implement radical changes. Arguments against changes include variations on how STEMM fields are rigorous by design and require levels of technical and content expertise that all students must be subjected to. A common argument asserts that change is indeed happening, but it happens gradually and that students should be less impatient to see the support they demand. However, students in the present or even near future cannot wait for incremental change that occurs at the speed of glacial advancement.
Given that many graduate students name their relationship between themselves and their advisors as primary sources of stress and tension, the onus is also on faculty to help solve this health crisis. Faculty can effect changes within their departments and in their research groups that can be enormous in impact upon the immediate students around them:
Evaluate yourself as a mentor and identify your biases
Recognizing your strengths and points for improvement as a mentor are crucial toward creating equitable and supportive spaces for students and colleagues. Mentorship in essence is related to how well we as people are able to relate and connect with one another. Most of us aren’t trained in the complex art of mentorship and often rely upon our own past experiences, negative and positive, to figure out how to mentor others. Yet, how much a mentor likes and respects a mentee ultimately decides how much a mentor is willing to extend themselves to help a trainee. If we are unable to truthfully examine our biases, we risk perpetuating inequalities in how factors like gender, race, and socioeconomic status can impact professional career advancement. Likewise, without critical examination of mentorship, the onus of navigating mentorship will continue to fall disproportionately on trainees, especially marginalized peoples, and add yet another load to the precarious mental health balancing act.
There are an abundance of ways to improve as a mentor in classrooms, research groups, and in one-on-one interactions. Professional development seminars held nationally and locally can help determine one’s mentorship style and workshop strategies for navigating healthy working relationships. Finding mentors amongst the ranks of your department, or even other departments at the institution, can help bring new perspectives to what it means to be a successful and supportive mentor. And finally, faculty advisors are often not only mentors, but also managers; recognizing the power differential between a manager-employee and a mentor-mentee can go a long way in setting good examples for students in setting professional boundaries in establishing healthy and respectful work settings.
Support students in their career development and their self determination
Understand that the job market is always evolving in its demands for graduate student level positions as well as new and emerging fields. The experiences one had 5 to 25 years ago might be markedly different than the current field. The only constant in the job market is that content and technical expertise (aka just being a student) is almost never enough to secure a position post-graduation, even in academia. Students have to hustle to seize opportunities for skills including, but not limited to, leadership building, resume critiques, and networking opportunities.
Support your students in their career development, and not when it just benefits you directly. Guilting students to work more for grants and papers comes at the expense of holistic personal and professional growth as well as generate resentment and distrust toward their mentors’ intentions. By supporting students in their self-determination, whether it be in their pursuit of internships or work in educational outreach, they are able to hone highly sought-after soft skills and build professional networks. Openly communicate with students by setting yearly goals for lab work and career development and revisit these plans as students discover and develop their interests. Remember that the success of students will always reflect positively upon their support networks, including their faculty advisors.
Recognizing your positionality and leveraging it
Community building is not as easy as getting everyone in the same room and expecting everyone to get along to make supportive environments. Rather than exclusively engaging in initiatives that create facades of supportive and healthy communities like poster campaigns, creating such spaces require concerted effort and active facilitation. These actions include communicating expectations to students as well as establishing norms within a department, such as enforcing sustainable working hours and supporting graduate student unions.
Faculty members are people who do have positions of power and the capacity to change STEMM spaces. Recognizing your position within an institution, department, and groups can make all the difference in fostering environments where students can be academically challenged but not hindered in well-being. All it takes is the will and the action to change.