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Grad School's Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.
(Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

(Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

Pop wisdom says you'd have to be a lunatic to spend six years earning a humanities Ph.D. given contracting faculty budgets and a concomitant expansion of ill-paid lectureships.

Leaving aside this prevalent if pat diagnosis (the constant howling drives consistent traffic—exhibit A), we might more properly say: Six years in a doctoral program is liable to make kooks of even our best-adjusted scholars.

Just look at our rich options for scholarly neurosis. There's Imposter Syndrome, relative poverty, the endless solitude of reading and research, disdain within one's extended family, not to mention the mixed-up rewards system that you must engineer in order to tell yourself that reading qualifies as work and therefore you deserve three square meals and occasional sleep. Depending on the school—especially if you're in California—competition for funding (not travel grants, but a livable teacher's stipend) can fuel all manner of anxiety.

"Acceptance" of mental illness is excellent if it means dispelling a toxic stigma; what's no good is the prevailing presumption that graduate school is supposed to be hell, and that madness is the natural communal reaction.

Faculty mentors who discuss their own grad-school stint as though it was Vietnam do not help much, either. I'll grant that such digital troves as Early English Books Online (EEBO), Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), and so on have made dissertation research much faster than it was 10 years ago. Yet some graduate mentors exact a double portion of agony from their grad students as though by way of restitution. These are professors who completed their graduate serfdoms on typewriters, yes, but they did so when the Ph.D. process was rather more like a medical residency—a painful feat of endurance that guaranteed employment for as long as you drew breath. Today's newly credentialed doctors of English are lucky to sign a two-semester contract.

So the cycle begins again: You have to be better than my generation because you have a.) more resources and b.) fewer prospects. I know a brilliant woman who studies dead languages in a top-five school and whose director of graduate study suggested that a prior anxiety diagnosis meant she wasn't sufficiently “strong” to make it through the program. When she told me of the exchange, my bafflement nearly equaled my fury. Someone should tell the guy we're not doing counterinsurgency or power-lifting—we're doing close readings. Of poetry. At ease, General.

The primary job of faculty mentors is to guide our study, not to hold our hand. But they misplace a significant duty when callous indifference or an overweening desire for their colleagues' admiration so thoroughly disengages professors from a basic concern for their mentees.

The results of all this cultural pressurization can be ugly. Writing earlier this year on the Guardian's Higher Education Network, an anonymous academic lamented “a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia.” What the writer means by “acceptance,” here, is really “expectation”—a culture where we require that everyone work herself to the point of physical and emotional enervation because hey, that's the nature of the racket. High-scoring students at top colleges who pursue doctorates in the humanities have already capitulated to manifold compromises: instead of earning small fortunes at consultancies, we sign a six-year contract to live on or around the poverty line while our teaching, writing, and research busies us for roughly 12 hours a day. We're told these drudgeries are requisite sacrifices to the life of the mind—there is usually an ingrained accusation of “self-indulgence,” as though working for Bain & Company is somehow altruistic—but this wisdom affords little comfort to the faltering fourth-year. “Acceptance” of mental illness is excellent if it means dispelling a toxic stigma; what's no good is the prevailing presumption that graduate school is supposed to be hell, and that madness is the natural communal reaction.

I SHOULD ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I really, really like graduate school. My program has treated me well, funded me on trips around the country and overseas, given me semester after semester of bright and enthusiastic undergraduates, and supported me when I started signing freelance contracts for non-academic writing. Perhaps more pertinent, I should also say that my current freelance routine began as an aggressive exercise in mental wellness. Fearing complacency, and distrusting anything that looks like a bubble, I took to essays and reporting because the work recalled my old day-job and offered occasional reprieve from the sequestered vales of academe. In some ways, I have no doubt driven myself semi-crazy by taking on a near-full-time job in addition to graduate study. But whatever madness I exhibit is and has ever been my own; on balance, I would probably be crazier without my second job, without the perspective it offers. When one's world contracts to fit the walls of a university, anything that happens within the walls has an artificially bloated importance.

Of course, what happens within the walls is terribly important, especially in a down market when Ph.D.s outnumber open jobs by an impossible margin and competition makes clawing animals of us all. One's options are fairly grim: publish or perish, or perish because you're working so hard to publish. This February, Science published an essay by Carrie Arnold about the rates of depression and suicidal ideation among graduate students. Reviewing a 2006 study among graduate students in the University of California system, Arnold notes that one in 10 students had considered suicide in the previous year, while “about 60% of graduate students said that they felt overwhelmed, exhausted, hopeless, sad, or depressed nearly all the time.” A mere 27 percent of graduate students polled had ever visited their campus mental health center.

The sharper schools are responding to these trends. Emory University has launched an aggressive mental health program for graduate and professional students, EmoryCares4U. According to EmoryCares:

Graduate and professional students are a high-risk group for mental health problems, including depression and suicidal behavior. Research has shown that graduate students have the highest rates of suicide and that more than half of graduate students have had thoughts of suicide at some point during their lives. Those at greatest risk are women in graduate school and older students who return after being out of school for a significant period of time. Meanwhile, research also shows that only 21 percent of graduate students have sought help from their university counseling center.

These are the students for whom we should spare a portion of our attention, our time, our empathy. Within these walls everyone is overworked, faculty mentors included, and I'm not suggesting new rounds of sensitivity training; that sort of training is too often a curricular performance rather than a meaningful conversation. We should expect no less—and perhaps no more—than a rudimentary emotional intelligence among our tenured patrons.

These are, as we might say, first-world problems, but by the same virtue they have first-world solutions. Yes, I have seen worthy men and women broken by callous politicking among the upper ranks of various departments on various campuses. But I have also seen gifted scholars who, having struggled with anxiety disorders since long before grad school, have thrived under proper graduate mentors and who are happier now than perhaps they have ever been. We don't need a cultural revolution to make grad school a safer and better-socialized place, and we're not asking a great deal of the professors themselves—no coddling; just a little bit of caring.

The Classroom is a regular series on the issues facing both students and teachers of higher education.