What Is Mental Health and Why Is It Important?
The World Health Organization has stated that mental health is a "state of well-being in which a person realizes [their] own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to [their] community" . Conversely, poor mental health or mental health issues make it harder for a person to do some or all of these things.
Mental health is a complex topic: every aspect of a person's life contributes to their mental health, including physical health, home life, connections with other people, workload, and personal identity.
In physics, supporting mental health makes us better scientists—more productive, collaborative, and creative—and happier people— better able to build relationships, recognize our own accomplishments, and realize our potential.
Graduate Student Mental Health
Compared to undergrad, grad school typically (1) involves different kinds of work than students are used to, (2) requires students to withdraw from familiar academic support structures while working at the forefront of their field, and (3) is more isolating, because there are fewer opportunities for socializing (such as before and after classes) and fewer people who can understand the work one is doing as a grad student [2, 3, 4, 5]. This combination results in a large risk for mental health challenges. The Diamondback recently highlighted some of these challenges within the UMD graduate community.
Common Mental Health Challenges
At UMD Physics, the Graduate Student Mental Health Task Force (MHTF) studies and tries to destigmatize mental health issues in the UMD Physics department. Over the past several years, the MHTF has administered several surveys to UMD physics graduate students and used the data to identify some common challenges.
Impostor Phenomenon (IP). IP is a psychological phenomenon in which a person believes they have tricked others into thinking they are smarter or more capable than they really are. Some things to know about IP:
- The MHTF has surveyed IP in UMD physics grad students using the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale [6, 7], which categorizes the severity of self-reported IP feelings into the categories "mild", "moderate", "frequent", and "intense." 50-70% of survey respondents have reported “frequent” or “intense” feelings of IP over four survey years. This is a higher level than many other academic populations that have been surveyed.
- People who suffer from IP are generally successful, competent people! But they misattribute their successes by connecting them only to factors such as luck, rather than also considering their own abilities and training. Combined with a tendency to also focus too much on their failures, this pattern of misattribution results in a negative self-image [5, 8].
- Some people talk about the "impostor cycle"  as a model for the underlying psychological dynamics of IP.
- To reconcile others’ positive views of them with their own negative self-perceptions, people experiencing IP come to believe they have tricked others into believing in their competency.
- Ameliorating IP involves countering the underlying self-doubts and negative narratives with statements about the student’s competence and honest, constructive feedback.
Challenges associated with identity. Consistently, grad students of underrepresented genders (e.g. female and nonbinary) in our department report higher levels of IP, depression, anxiety, and stress, as well as lower feelings of departmental support than male grad students.
Worsening mental health in later stages of the program. Students who have been in the program longer report higher levels of anxiety and depression. Many of the challenges of grad school become more serious in the middle and later stages of the program: a grad student is no longer in classes, they are expected to do work on more difficult and more creative levels, and more is asked of them due to their greater experience.
Thoughts for Graduate Students
The MHTF seeks to understand what leads graduate students to struggle with their mental health and try to ameliorate it so that we can all be better scientists and happier people. To that end we want to make a few things clear:
- You are not alone! Both the data collected by the MHTF and personal experience show that mental health challenges are pervasive in our department and in many graduate programs across the world. While each person's experience of mental health challenges is unique, some aspects, such as the underlying causes, are similar, and talking with others can help us realize those causes, help remind us that our experiences are not in vacuum, and give us some perspective into how to overcome the issue.
- Graduate school is hard! By "hard" we don't only mean that you're expected to do a number of difficult things (work at the forefront of human knowledge, withdraw from familiar academic structures like exams and grades, and learn how to "think like a physicist"). When we say "hard", we also mean that doing those difficult tasks also involves things outside of your control. Sometimes something in your lab just breaks; sometimes other members of the group don't do their job or have their own struggles; sometimes expectations among group members are unclear or mismatched; sometimes fellowship and job applications are up to chance. And other times, all the lab components work, your group as a whole is performing well, and you nail that job application. We encourage grad students to not be discouraged by failure in the course of your graduate education, but to reflect and learn from it when you can; we also encourage grad students to celebrate their successes with others and make those successes even sweeter.
In our surveys, we often ask students what they feel helps their mental health. We get a wide variety of responses, including:
- Friends, family, and loved ones. Relationships with others can provide a sense of life outside of work and a place to express emotions and distress. This includes regular opportunities to socialize with work colleagues.
- Pride in academic accomplishments. Grad students particularly express pride in publishing their work and going to conferences to present and network. These are opportunities for external feedback that can help grad students believe in the importance of their work and help them understand what research directions are less or more interesting.
- Daily exercise. Many students find that daily walks, runs, biking, or going to the gym helps their mental health, an experience aligned with the consensus of medical studies.
The MHTF has also put together some info and tips in the UMD Physics Grad Student Guide for mental health hygiene, general info, and finding a therapist.
The UMD Graduate School has also put together some videos about Mental Health Tips.
What Can Faculty Do?
We encourage faculty, whether in teaching or advising roles, to consider the following:
- Know the resources. When a student is having a mental health difficulty, the single most effective thing a faculty member can do is know what resources are available to help. This page is meant to be a one-stop shop for all of those resources, including the Assisting Students in Distress handout link at the top and the list of resources below.
- Be communicative. In the absence of guidance and communication, students will create their own narratives on every topic, including the importance of their research, whether they are meeting expectations as a graduate student, and whether they have the ability to do their work, in class or in research. These constructed narratives won’t always be healthy or rational. Faculty should actively seek regular, honest, and healthy dialogue with their students.
- Don’t feel like you need to be a therapist! While student mental health can seem like a daunting subject to discuss, please remember there are people trained to discuss mental health concerns with students. Especially if it seems that mental health issues are interfering with a student's daily work, consider suggesting the student see a therapist.
- Raise your own awareness. Mental health awareness is a skill like any other. To build that skill, we can seek resources, training, and literature to improve our awareness of mental health issues. One notable example is UMD's regular offering of a Mental Health First Aid course.
Resources at UMD
UMD Mental Health Services
Second floor of the UMD Health Center; offers individual and group therapy.
UMD Counseling Center
Offers both counseling and academic coaching.
UMD Clinical Psychology Clinic
Offers discounted long-term therapy.
UMD Center for Healthy Families
Offers long-term individual, couples, and family therapy.
Campus Advocates Respond and Educate (CARE) to Stop Violence
Provides crisis intervention, counseling, and advocacy for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, and sexual harassment affecting all genders.
Helping Students in Distress
Webpage list of resources for instructors, curated by the UMD counseling center.
UMD LGBT+ Equity Center
Offers safe spaces for discussion, training, and advocacy.
Multicultural Involvement and Community Advocacy
Offers advising for students and student organizations, training, and discussion spaces.
Accessibility and Disability Service
Offers support for accessibility considerations.
Learning Assistance Services
Offers academic coaching and study help.
Office of Multi-ethnic Student Education
Offers tutoring, mentorship, and inclusivity events.
Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering
Works to create a supportive environment for underrepresented minority pre-college, undergraduate, and graduate students in engineering through advising and scholarships.
Assists students with resolving conflicts with university officials.
UMD Crisis Fund
A fund for students experiencing acute financial hardship.
External and National Resources
988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
Call or text 988 for immediate support in a mental health crisis.
Crisis Text Line
Text HOME to 741741 to be connected with a crisis counselor.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Nonprofit organization that organizes peer-led support groups across the country, both in person and virtual. They provide a toll-free helpline that provides education and support to people struggling with mental health (open 10am-10pm EST Monday-Friday; not a crisis line!) at 800-950-6264.
An organization specifically focused on supporting LGBTQ+ youth, they offer 24/7 suicide prevention and crisis intervention through text, chat, and over the phone.