There is a 50% chance that any of your graduate students will develop some sort of mental health issue during their PhD. Some of you will have first hand experience with the matter, others will have no idea on how to deal with this. If you are in the latter category, know that not all students will feel comfortable sharing their struggle with you. Be aware of some silent indicators of distress, such as decreased productivity, changes in behavior (for example, a participative student who suddenly becomes mostly quiet during lab meetings), missed deadlines, or recurrent excuses not to attend one-on-one meetings with you, among others. If you notice something amiss, a simple “I’ve noticed you seem different. Are you doing alright? I am here to help, so please let me know if I can do so” can go a very long way.
If your student discloses their struggles, the most important thing is to kindly suggest that they seek professional help. Only a professional can properly diagnose and treat mental health issues. Normalize the situation. Explain that there is absolutely no shame in seeing a therapist (who may or may not recommend that the student also sees a psychiatrist). Many students see seeking mental health help as stigmatizing. Moreover, therapy is still a taboo topic in many families, and you may not know a particular student’s background. Keep in mind that finding a good therapist or counselor is not always as easy as it should be, and that the process may take weeks or months. Encourage your student to be persistent and to seek help from a trusted friend or family member if making the calls to set up appointments is too much for them at the moment.
There is unfortunately no magic pill for mental health issues. Once your student is being seen by a professional, they will continue needing your help and support for a long period of time. Be kind, and be patient. Do not expect this student to be as productive as their labmates (or as you were during your own PhD). Help them set small goals and celebrate all accomplishments, no matter their size. Constructive criticism is most definitely still possible, and may be needed, but be sure to couch it in a positive setting, frame it with positive feedback, and be mindful of your student’s mental state. Their health is more important than the greatness of their results.
Encourage your student to keep a healthy work-life balance, even if you didn’t have one during your own PhD. At the same time, don’t add even more to their plate. Feeling forced to exercise or pick up a new “therapeutic” hobby or practice on top of working when they have a hard time with just picking up clothes in the morning may be too much for them until their symptoms start to subside. Encourage, don’t pressure.
Stimulate a healthy, supportive lab environment where collaboration reigns, not competition. Comparisons between graduate students are inevitable, and can be devastating for a student struggling with a distorted perception of self-worth. Normalize mental health struggles, and validate their feelings. Mental health issues are pervasive in academia, but that doesn’t make them less painful. It’s important for your student to know that they are not the only ones in this situation, without minimizing their suffering.
Be consistent with your student. Not knowing when they will get feedback on a manuscript or if they will have a meeting with you on a given week may be very anxiety-inducing. As much as possible, aim for a consistent schedule and explicit deadlines so the student can better manage their time.
Luckily, academia is becoming more and more aware of its issues with mental health, and there are myriads of blog posts and resources online to help faculty deal with this situation. Set some time aside to educate yourself, and your students’ well-being (and therefore their productivity!) will greatly benefit from this. And when in doubt, ask. A simple “I am sorry this is happening to you. What can I do to better support you in this time?” can be immensely helpful.
Finally, academia may or may not be the right place for your student. They are the only ones who can make that decision, though. Do not try and influence them one way or the other. If your student voices a desire to leave academia, support them. This is not a failure at all! If, on the other hand, your student wishes to continue in the academic path, do your best to assuage their fears that they don’t belong due to their mental health issues. Many successful academics have struggled (or still struggle!) with mental health issues, and many people find extremely rewarding careers outside of academia. All are valid career choices, and only your student can decide what is best for them.
Here are few blog posts and articles you may find helpful:
- What colleges must do to promote mental health for graduate students
- How to support undergraduate students experiencing mental health concerns – Definitely applicable to graduate students too!
- Creating environments where it’s ok to make mistakes and ask questions
- Let’s talk about mental health in academia
- How to choose a good scientific problem (Alon 2009) – Thoughts on nurturing the development of graduate students and their projects