Being able to rely on emotional support and advice at university is vital for graduate students’ mental health. University studies can sometimes put additional pressure on students regardless of whether or not they have existing personal problems.

Emotional health encompasses a lot more than just the absence of an illness – the term may just as well apply to unexpected stress and daily struggles. Here is how defines it: “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.

This means that graduate learners may be going through different types of challenges. Some may feel isolated, others may experience overworking and burnout, while others struggle with impostor syndrome, or not feeling like they deserve to be in university at all.

Of course, problems of this nature are not a daily occurrence, nor are they experienced by every student on campus. One of the first lessons people learn at university is that the graduate journey is much more enjoyable when it is shared. When students form communities and support each other – in the classroom and outside it – they are able to overcome many of their concerns.

The most important point to make from the beginning is that this complex mix of emotions and challenges can be managed. From a student’s perspective, it’s imperative to seek counselling early on, before matters get more serious. From the university side, it’s essential to invest in mental health care for students and provide whatever necessary for their well-being.

What are the experiences of students?

Attending an international Masters programme can often be challenging. Students have to take a variety of classes and complete multiple assignments – from academic papers to their final research thesis. While it’s important to address issues related to burnout, stress, and the emotional health of students from all levels of education, some experts note that graduate students have different needs from undergraduates, for example. According to Nance Roy, Chief Clinical Officer at the Jed Foundation – a non-profit that focuses on the mental health of young adults – “graduate students might find it especially difficult to take time off when they’re feeling overwhelmed.”

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Of course, Masters participants need to be prepared to handle the occasionally stressful moments of their programme. The journey can be especially demanding for international students or for people who have to work in addition to their studies. However, emotional distress shouldn’t be dismissed as just a normal consequence of attending university. Students experiencing trouble sleeping, difficulty in concentrating or other emotional hardships would do well to address them and seek professional help, if possible.   

I felt bad that I even needed this kind of help. After all, wasn’t higher education a place where we are supposed to put pressure on our brains? Maybe I really didn’t belong here. Maybe I didn’t have what it takes,” shares Kathryn R. Wedemeyer-Strombel, PhD graduate, for The Chronicle. “Ultimately, therapy showed me that wasn’t the case.

Preventing emotional distress early on, before it becomes a regular experience for learners, is another solution worth exploring. Teresa Evans, a career development office director and lecturer at the University of Texas (US) Health Science Center, advises students to be proactive regarding their mental well-being and to have an action plan at the ready if things ever get serious. Ms Evans points out that no one is fully sheltered from the unexpected turns of life and especially for university students, “it is important to know who you can turn to and build that team of people now so that you have them [when you need them].

How are universities taking care of graduate students’ mental health?

The first step in dealing with students’ mental health issues is acknowledging that they are real and showing that educational institutions are eager to help in any way they can. After that, schools can take different active measures to address the topic. Take as an example the Mental Health Bill of Rights and Responsibilities – a document adopted by the graduate education department at Vanderbilt University (US), according to the Nature Research publication.

The document states that […] any student who seeks mental health treatment through the university will be assigned a care coordinator who can help them to navigate the system and connect with resources,” summarises Nature Research. The dean of the Vanderbilt University Graduate School, Mark Wallace, has pointed out that the document is a product of discussions between students and university representatives, resulting in a collective effort where everyone has a role to play in battling the mental health stigma.

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Reports that have specifically addressed the topic suggest a proactive and informative course of action for schools. In her article for Inside Higher Ed, editor Colleen Flaherty quotes some of the recommendations made by these studies which include educating both students and faculty about mental health needs at university as well as bringing more awareness about clinical services. The report quoted by Ms Flaherty emphasises how important it is for schools to show students that their emotional well-being is a priority at the institutions they are attending.

Some schools have successfully taken matters into their own hands. In 2018, Johns Hopkins University in the US initiated a university-wide task force and published an internal report detailing facts, policies, and prevention practices related to student mental health. According to Margaret Daniele Fallin, co-chair of the task force, change can already be seen as a result of the report. “There have been more frequent interactions across divisions about student mental health, more exchanges about best practices, more support for student-led efforts and better coordination of disability services with health and academic services,” Ms Fallin told Inside Higher Ed.

Ultimately, when we talk about mental health support on a graduate level, it’s essential to work towards removing the stigma for students. There is nothing wrong with needing emotional support, in a personal or professional setting, so start by seeking help and acknowledging that you are not alone in your struggle.