Graduate students suffer from high levels of mental health stress, but pandemic offers an opportunity for change

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Graduating students suffer from high rates of depression, anxiety and mental stress, studies show, a situation made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. But as campuses reopen and students return to their labs, now is the time to implement changes that can turn the tide, say researchers at the University of Michigan.

In a study published online September 21 in the journal Neuron, researchers say four types of changes can be made to reduce mental health stress and potentially increase the productivity of academic scientists.

The changes include creating a structure in the lab with deadlines, well-defined working hours and short-term goals. Students should be encouraged to set personal boundaries, such as making time for exercise or taking care of their needs. Mentoring and building strong relationships are also important and should be nurtured. And it’s important to cultivate a safe and collaborative laboratory culture, say the researchers.

“Every person in a lab environment can do something to support the mental health of graduate students. You don’t have to be a mental health professional to make things better, ”said study lead author Meghan Duffy, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UM.

Duffy is a disease ecologist who runs a 16-person lab that includes a lab manager, technician, four postdoctoral scientists, four graduate students, and six undergraduate students.

She led the UM Graduate Student Mental Health Task Force, which was tasked with finding ways to improve student mental health in the summer of 2019. The task force’s work has grown into something new. all the more timely when COVID-19 has struck.

About 24% of doctoral students have significant depression symptoms and 17% have significant anxiety symptoms, levels similar to medical students and resident physicians and higher than the general population, recent studies show. . Then, when the pandemic hit, like so many parts of society, graduate students saw these mental health stress rates rise even more.

This is one of the reasons why it is important that good communication and structural systems are in place as soon as the laboratories reopen, explains co-author Natalie Tronson, associate professor in the department of psychology at UM. .

Tronson, who has long been interested in the effect of stress-induced depression on the brain, says that sometimes when students move from a highly structured undergraduate life to independence and self-reliance graduate research structure, adjustment is difficult.

“People need structure and they need to know: what should I do? What needs to be done? What are my deadlines? ” she said. “But on the other hand, laboratory work does not fit into a tight structure. Science is not a 9 to 5 job, so mentors and students need to find that balance.

Pairing students with mentors, sometimes more than one mentor, and communication is important, say Duffy and Tronson: Students need to know that it’s okay if an experiment fails. They need to know when they have gathered enough information. And they need to get feedback and set small deadlines to help them meet the bigger ones.

The third co-author of the study is Daniel Eisenberg of the Department of Health Policy and Management, Fielding School of Public Health, University of California, Los Angeles.

Written by Wendy Bowyer

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