Poor mental health amongst graduate and professional students in 2020

by Kelsey Jesser

Stressed out studentGetting a graduate or professional degree is stressful. This seemingly obvious statement is backed up by a substantial body of research demonstrating that graduate and medical students, particularly those from underrepresented groups, have higher than average rates of depression and anxiety. Graduate and professional students (myself included!) can experience long work hours, high pressure to produce and perform, influential and sometimes unsupportive relationships with mentors, a precarious financial situation, and uncertain future employment. These and other challenges that contribute to poor mental health outcomes were exacerbated in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a dramatic increase in social isolation and incidences of anti-Asian violence. The stress and fear surrounding the emergence of a novel virus was exacerbated by police and vigilante killings of Black Americans and the increasing awareness and protests around the persistent racial violence in the United States. Continue reading

Institutions must take responsibility for the mentorship of their trainees

by Meredith CoursePhoto of Dr. Meredith Course

My colleague (an incredible mentor herself!) Dr. Irini Topalidou and I were frustrated to see poor mentorship treated as a failing of individuals, when we felt it was clearly a larger, cultural issue in STEM. We were also galvanized to publish this article when we saw over and over evidence that good mentorship is disproportionately unavailable to underrepresented minorities in STEM, despite the fact that it is particularly beneficial to them. Without structural changes in place, those in mentorship positions would be allowed to mentor as they saw fit, rather than deliberately and with evidence-based practices, similar to those we learn about in STEP-WISE. Improved mentorship skills, we argue, benefits not just trainees, but mentors and institutions as well. Therefore, it behooves the institutions who hire and promote mentors and who admit and confer degrees on trainees to implement effective mentorship incentives, accountability, and training.

Institutions should take responsibility for trainee mentorship


The importance of mental health support for graduate and medical trainees: You are not alone

By Kristin G. Anderson and Jennifer M. Stinson

When I started graduate school, a friend introduced me to the blog Hyperbole and a Half, a series created by comedian/artist/blogger Allie Brosh. Many of her posts are light-hearted, entertaining stories from various stages of her life:

Dog from Hyperbole and a Half blog Alot from Hyperbole and a Half blog Image from "This why I'll never be an adult"(Images above from: “Dog”, “The Alot is better than you at everything”, and “This is why I’ll never be an adult”)

For me, though, some of her most thought-provoking posts address issues related to mental health. Allie has a greater legacy than her cartoons: her readers feel like they are not alone.

Many of Allie’s stories reference, directly or indirectly, heavy topics, like burnout (“This is why I’ll never be an adult”), mood disorders (“Sneaky hate spiral”), social anxiety (“The awkward situation survival guide”), and depression (“Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two”). She makes the subject matter relatable by weaving in humor. Her fans—including graduate school me—echo her experiences and thank her for reflecting their feelings.

Early and often, peers and mentors in graduate school consistently said “this is going to be hard.” I was prepared to feel tired, stressed, and overwhelmed from time to time, but I wasn’t prepared for anxiety, self-doubt, imposter syndrome, burnout, isolation, and depression. A new study from Nagy and colleagues (Nagy et. al. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 2019) found that 49.3% of biomedical graduate students met criteria for a mental health disorder in the past year, which is about twice the rate in the general population (Kessler et. al. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2005). This reinforces what has been a growing concern in graduate studies: these issues are relatively widespread in biomedical graduate student education and are linked in part to people leaving graduate school. Continue reading