When I began my undergraduate degree, I had just been diagnosed with an eating disorder. Within my first few weeks of being at my university, I walked into the campus health services building, told a receptionist exactly that, and got an appointment with a healthcare provider. This began my long, but rewarding, journey navigating campus health and mental health resources as both an undergraduate and grad student.
If you, like me, are a graduate student dealing with mental illness, you are not alone. As many as 41% of graduate students have anxiety, while 39% suffer from depression).1 (A fellow CSN grad student wrote this blog post last fall about their experience with anxiety.) This is compounded by the stresses of STEM environments, especially for those from traditionally marginalized groups. (To learn more about this, check out the article from Wilkins-Yel et al.,2 who examined how STEM environments impact mental health and STEM persistence for white, Black, and Latina women). Despite the high prevalence of mental health concerns among STEM graduate students, our departments and labs may not always feel like a welcome place to voice our concerns about our mental health. Even for students working in supportive environments, many mental health concerns can’t be addressed by a supportive lab alone (though an unsupportive environment certainly doesn’t help).
These statistics sound pretty bleak. But there is good news for graduate students living with mental health issues: chances are that your university has some support services in place. These vary greatly by institution, but, as I learned, even smaller colleges and universities can help connect you with care. Many of us have heard about our campuses having only limited counseling sessions or long wait times to get appointments. This may sound discouraging, but don’t let it stop you from reaching out for support. Of course, my experience that first semester of undergrad is unique to me, but I think it can provide a nice example of how navigating these systems can look, and a general idea of what resources are offered at many universities. Since we’ve just finished National Mental Health Awareness Month, this seemed like as good a time as any to share, and encourage others to take advantage of the resources around them.
When I began receiving treatment for my eating disorder, I was already seeing a therapist off campus. However, my physical health was also suffering. Of course, physical and mental health are closely intertwined, and this is especially true for eating disorders—behaviors associated with eating disorders cause real, serious harm to our bodies. This is what led me to my campus health services office. At my undergraduate (and graduate) university, appointments to treat physical health are unlimited and typically free. For me, this also included free visits with a dietician. After a semester at school, I decided I wanted to see a different therapist from the one off-campus—it was just time for a change.
Despite my positive experiences with my campus health services so far, I was hesitant to go to them for therapy, though. This was mostly because my campus, like many others, had limited counseling sessions available per student. Despite this, campus services were convenient, so I gave a few sessions a try (and found them very helpful). To supplement these, I also attended unlimited group sessions. These may sound intimidating, but I had an incredible experience with group therapy. I learned so much from my groups, and they helped me feel like others understood what I was going through. Meanwhile, I was also prescribed medication to help with some feelings of anxiety that I was experiencing. Anxiety is a separate diagnosis for me, but the anxious feelings I was having were driving my eating disorder as well, so addressing them was important. All together, these services helped me work towards recovery.
While it may seem like a lot of work to deal with all these appointments (and it was, sometimes) everything was arranged by a case manager at my university. I didn’t have to find providers myself, make endless phone calls, or any of those other anxiety-inducing things. Case managers are amazing resources available through many campus health services departments (including both my undergraduate and graduate institutions). Not only can they help you navigate on-campus resources, but they can also give you recommendations for off-campus providers that fit your needs and, if applicable, insurance. Eventually, I landed with an off-campus therapist recommended to me by my case manager. When I began graduate school, health services at my new institution helped me find a psychiatrist to manage the medications I was prescribed previously. And today, I am grateful for the help I received at both institutions.
The moral of the story: campus health services can seem intimidating to navigate at first. It may also be discouraging to see that your campus only offers limited counseling sessions or has limited resources (this is a whole other, very real, issue). However, don’t let that stop you from taking advantage of whatever services you have at your disposal. Completing graduate school is no easy feat, but there are people who want to help you along the way.
Resources about Mental Health
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Eating Disorders Association
- National Institute of Mental Health
- Understanding Anxiety
- Evans, T. et al. Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 2018, 36(3), 282–284. doi: 10.1038/nbt.4089
- Wilkins-Yel et al. “I can’t push off my own Mental Health“: Chilly STEM Climates, Mental Health, and STEM Persistence among Black, Latina, and White Graduate Women. Sex Roles, 2022, 86, 208-232. doi: 10.1007/s11199-021-01262-1