Why This Professor Cares about Student Mental Health

Ten to 15 students a day would come around to the Muller Faculty Center office of Derek Adams to discuss African American literature and ask questions about assignments. Then the Covid-19 pandemic forced Ithaca College classes online and turned the professor’s office hours into Zoom calls as well. Only a couple students a week showed up after office hours went virtual.

Adams regretted the lost mentoring time, but he had an even greater concern: his students’ mental health. A professor who cares deeply about student wellbeing, Adams uses office hours to keep an eye on how his students are doing.

“I don’t think it takes a license to actively listen, or to be open minded and listen to what somebody has to share,” said Adams, an associate professor of English who came to Ithaca College in 2012. “That’s something we should all be able to do. That’s just a very human thing that we do.”

Professors can often be the first to notice if a student is struggling with their mental health. On the first day of classes, Adams addresses students with three ice-breaker questions that demonstrate how he incorporates their wellbeing as a priority in his teaching: What is something you want to take from the class? What is something you’re willing to give to it? What is something we should know about you to get to a place where we can do the work that we need to do?

From there, Adams strives to create a classroom community with strong student connections that he believes benefits their mental health. For example, he requires students to learn each other’s names and encourages them to address each other as such in classroom discussions.

“I think, the better the state [my mental health] is in, the more I retain from what my students share with me, the more I retain from what I’m reading and what I’m conveying, the better I’m able to make connections between things,” Adams said. “And so, I just imagined that if that was true for me, it would be true for students as well, so I wanted to make that a core part of my pedagogy.”

A caring community in which students are allowed to feel vulnerable facilitates a greater understanding of literature, Adams believes. “I don’t know that we will ever get to the level of instruction and transmission of knowledge and the sharing of information that we want to get to without at least acknowledging that mental health is a core part of our experience,” he said.

But after the pandemic hit, Adams’s classroom community became more difficult to build in a Zoom gathering. The casual chatter before and after class—about things in the news, or popular culture—largely disappeared. “There’s just something about being in person that I think makes students feel more free to share those things,” he said. “Without those, it was harder to establish that kind of bond with my students.”

In response, Adams tried out some new ideas to rebuild his classroom community. He asked his students to address a letter to someone they trusted and cared about, exploring current events and how they felt about them. As they shared their letters with the Zoom class, Adams felt a better connection to his students and to the state of their mental health.

“Just giving students the platform to do that helped cultivate that sense of community that I’ve been able to hit on in my in-person classes for so many years,” Adams said. “I was learning to do this for the first time online.”

Adams also made clear that he is sensitive to obstacles in online learning and has adjusted expectations accordingly. He reminds students to prioritize their well-being and gives them pep talks. “Look at what you’re doing right now,” he tells his students. “How incredible is it that, in the middle of the pandemic, you can pick yourself up?”

Adams understands that many students struggle to be open with their professors, wary to admit they are having trouble keeping up. He believes that’s why it is essential for professors to pay attention to their students’ mental health. Although he is not a clinician, he can offer an empathetic ear. And, when he sees a cause for greater concern, he refers students to other resources such as Ithaca College’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

CAPS Director Brian Petersen agreed that everyone on campus can help improve the mental health climate.

“Mental health support for students is the responsibility of the entire campus community and Ithaca College is committed to creating a campus-wide culture that is focused on mental wellness,” Petersen explained.

Petersen believes that faculty members should be formally trained to recognize warning signs for distress and even suicide. Currently they are provided with a resource guide for directing students to support services on and off campus.

 “Our goal is to help faculty feel comfortable with this kind of intervention,” said Petersen. “We also talk with faculty about boundaries and how to be helpful without being too invested or psychologically or emotionally enmeshed with the student.”

Adams is looking forward to seeing students in his daily office hours again. But he doesn’t want to forget the lessons he’s learned about community building during the pandemic  “Whatever happens from this point forward, I would like there to be a continued focus—a renewed focus—on mental health and well being,” he said.

—By Lorelei Horrell

Lorelei Horrell, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a second year Ithaca College student with a Writing major and double minor in Sociology and English.

Sleepless in Ithaca

Instead of falling asleep at 10 p.m., Daniel, a junior psychology major at Ithaca College, has just woken up. He was too tired to stay awake in the afternoon, but now he won’t be able to get back to sleep until 2 or 3 a.m. Because he won’t get enough sleep at night, tomorrow he’ll be tired again in the afternoon.

The Fountains at Ithaca College

College students are notorious for their unconventional sleep schedules. The transition to online classes during the Covid-19 pandemic has merged school and personal time, meaning even more students are having difficulty getting enough sleep at night and staying awake during the day. The Ithaca College Center for Health Promotion hosts the THRIVE @ IC Wellness Coaching program, which includes one-on-one sessions and group workshops for building resiliency to help students address these sleep difficulties and other health concerns. According to Program Director Nancy Reynolds, a Health Education Specialist and National Board-certified health and wellness coach, anyone can start taking steps today to improve their sleep cycle and overall wellness.

A good night’s sleep might be hard to get for some, experts agree, but it’s easy to define. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults college-aged and up need seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Sleep is generally better without frequent awakenings and when you keep a consistent routine, waking up and going to bed at similar times every day.

Reynolds points out signs of a poor sleep schedule that may sound familiar to college students.

“Do you feel well-rested in the morning?” Reynolds asks. “What’s your fatigue level during the day? Because that’s another marker of if you’re not getting enough sleep or a good quality of sleep. You’re going to notice during the day that you’re feeling groggy, maybe you’re falling asleep in class, you’re having to take naps every day because you’re so tired.”

It’s a stereotype that college students choose to stay up past midnight and sleep into the afternoon, but many students like Daniel, who requested that his full name not be published, really do have difficulty getting up and staying awake.

According to Reynolds, various aspects of student culture contribute to unhealthy sleep schedules. When students spend time on phones and laptops late into the night, she noted, blue light from these devices prevents the brain from releasing sleep chemicals. Reynolds said that many students also struggle with time management, especially when they’re juggling a lot of responsibilities. That can force students to stay up late to complete all their tasks or assignments, she said. Reynolds also points to a strange element of college culture in which students “compete” to be the busiest or the most sleep deprived—which some students dub the “Sleep Olympics.”

The switch to online learning has further complicated student sleep problems, Reynolds said. Students face even more hours of screen time, and the line between schoolwork and rest of life is blurred. It’s not unusual for students to log in to a class on Zoom and see several classmates attending from their beds. Reynolds explained that taking online classes from the same room all day may be another reason students are struggling with sleep.

“We’re not getting variety in our day in terms of social connections and moving around to different environments—walking around campus, going to the library, hanging out in different students’ rooms,” she said. “We’re not getting the same amount of stimulation that our brains need to make our bodies ready for sleep at night.”

Along with lack of stimulation, Covid-19 has introduced new stressors, such as social, financial, and health-related worries, that may keep students up at night, Reynolds said. She noted that many people are coping with feelings of grief for those they have lost to Covid-19.

Reynolds said that sleep and mental health are strongly interconnected. Bad moods, low energy, and difficulty in focusing due to lack of sleep take a toll on mental health.

Reynolds explained that sleep cycles necessary to maintaining mental wellness can be interrupted for many reasons, one of which is substance use.

“Some students are self-medicating with cannabis,” she said, explaining how students use marijuana to help them fall asleep at night. “The downside is we know scientifically that THC and cannabis prevent us from going into REM sleep, which is dream sleep. If you don’t get dream sleep on a continual basis, your mood may suffer.”

Struggling with mental health can cause poor sleep, and in turn poor sleep can make it difficult to focus on one’s mental health, Reynolds said. Anxiety specifically feeds into this cycle, as racing thoughts keep people awake, and the resulting poor sleep causes them to feel like they can’t handle challenges in their lives, she added.

Daniel agreed that the two were related, saying, “When my sleep schedule is off, I’m often anxious about class work, since I don’t have time or energy to get it done.”

It can seem like an endless cycle. At Wellness Coaching, Reynolds focuses on finding a first step that can help students move forward. This may be anything from mindfulness to a new exercise routine.

“You have to go at it from both aspects—improving the sleep and reducing anxiety,” Reynolds explained.

All aspects of health are related, which Wellness Coaching illustrates through a “Resilience Pyramid” graphic. The bottom building blocks of the pyramid are eating well, “balancing substance use,” moving your body, and getting good sleep. All of these elements are essential for building up personal health and moving up to higher goals on the pyramid such as connecting with others and adopting a growth mindset.

In a first visit with Wellness Coaching, students typically assess their own strengths and challenges on the pyramid. They can then start finding solutions. Wellness Coaching is currently available virtually at no cost for all Ithaca College students. Reynolds encourages students to reach out, even if they only need assistance for one session. (Email healthpromotion@ithaca.edu for more information.)

Reynolds said there are several first steps that a student can take today to getting their sleep cycle back on track. For example, she said, take the time to go for a walk outside, allow yourself breaks between classes, and stay connected with the important people in your life. Be mindful of activities that may be disrupting your sleep cycle, such as upsetting media, substance use, and long naps, Reynolds advised. She also recommends establishing a nightly wind-down routine, a period of 30 to 60 minutes before bed when you shut off your devices and do something quiet like stretching or listening to a podcast.

As the semester nears an end, Daniel is feeling hopeful. With three of his five classes now meeting in person, he’s having less difficulty separating work and leisure environments. He’s also monitoring his afternoon habits, trying to avoid  too-long naps. Daniel’s latest report: the sleep cycle is getting back on track.

—By Lorelei Horrell

Lorelei Horrell, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a second year Ithaca College student with a Writing major and double minor in Sociology and English.

Cornell Circle K: Service, Leadership, and Fellowship

Cornell Circle K is a student organization committed to doing meaningful service through direct community engagement, developing its members to be the successful leaders today, and being an advocate for positive change in order to create a better world for humanity.

Cornell Circle K members

In our latest initiative, Cornell Circle K organized a mental wellness kit fundraiser to support mental health in Ithaca and on the Cornell University campus and to benefit The Sophie Fund. Our members sold hot chocolate kits with peppermint candies, Mind Your Mind stickers, mental health resources, and Sophie Fund buttons and stickers to encourage a healthy start to Cornell’s 2021 spring semester.

We were in contact with other Cornell organizations and club members in order to spread an engaging message of support and to remove the stigma associated with accessing help for mental health improvement. Especially under the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, it is easy for students to feel isolated and overwhelmed with stress. Our fundraiser had the goal to relieve this stress for students undergoing these unprecedented times. Altogether, Cornell Circle K sold 65 mental wellness kits and raised a total of $243.00 for The Sophie Fund.

“The stigma attached to mental health can make it a difficult conversation to start on campus. The collaboration with The Sophie Fund and Cornell Circle K provided us with an exciting opportunity to start those conversations, as well as raise awareness about the need for strong support and resources,” said Julia Fan, co-president of Cornell Circle K.

Cornell Circle K’s mental health kit

Brendon Nguyen, also co-president of Cornell Circle K, mentioned: “I am so glad Circle K connected with The Sophie Fund to put together a fundraiser to spread some joy while also sharing mental wellness resources with more of the Cornell community. During my early years at Cornell, I remember feeling so isolated with my anxiety, but I was lucky to have a lot of support to normalize conversations around mental wellness and eventually seeking professional help. After hearing about The Sophie Fund’s mission, it seemed like a no-brainer to support a local nonprofit that actively works towards helping more youth take better care of their mental health. The more we can do to support each other’s mental wellness, the more we can accomplish and the better off we are.”

“We are honored that Cornell Circle K chose us for its mental wellness initiative,” said Scott MacLeod, co-founder of The Sophie Fund. “Beyond that, we are so grateful to see Cornell students supporting each other, and working to break down the stigma about seeking help for mental health.”

Preparing the Ithaca Children’s Garden

Founded in 1936, Cornell Circle K is a campus-based, student-led, inclusive service organization. It is a proud and active member of Circle K International, the world’s largest student-led collegiate service organization, and maintains close connections with the International K Family (Kiwanis, Key Club, Builders Club, and Aktion Club). Circle K International boasts a membership of more than 11,000 collegiate service leaders on more than 500 campuses worldwide. This organization is based around three tenets: service, leadership, and fellowship. 

Throughout the year, Cornell Circle K completes various service kits to get involved around the Ithaca community and beyond. During the fall 2020 semester, members wrote letters to residents and healthcare workers at a Hattie Larlham care facility in Ohio to encourage wellbeing and show support for those at risk of Covid-19. Members also crafted baby blankets out of fleece cloth for Arnot Health Hospitals in Elmira. Another service kit with tissue paper carnations and no slip socks was done for seniors at Ithaca area nursing homes. Dog toys were also created as a service kit to support local animal shelters. 

Past fundraisers by Cornell Circle K have supported other local community organizations. During the fall semester of 2020 we completed a sticker fundraiser supporting the Multicultural Center of Ithaca, which has a passion for eliminating barriers in racial justice, cultural development and representation, and equity and inclusion.

We have raised money for Cayuga Dog Rescue, a local rescue shelter, which made it possible for one of their dogs, Snowball, to spend the day at Cornell Vet Hospital’s oncology clinic having some mammary tumors evaluated. Two other rescues, Sammy and Toby, also received winter coats, special treats, brain teaser puzzles, and tug toys.

Cornell Circle K has also been involved with the Cayuga Nature Center helping prepare the garden for winter as well as the Ithaca Children’s Garden pulling weeds and raking leaves. Our service and volunteer projects are wide-ranging but have a focus on communal unity and support. 

—By Max Fante

Max Fante ’24 is the Fundraising Committee Chair for Cornell Circle K. He is a Biological Sciences major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.

Commending Cornell’s Mental Health Recommendations

The Sophie Fund, in a presentation to Cornell University on March 1, supported the Cornell Mental Health Review’s recommendations for addressing student mental health and commended Cornell administrators for launching a process to implement them.

Download: Cornell University’s Mental Health Review Final Report

The Mental Health Review, initiated by President Martha E. Pollack in 2018, and carried out by internal and external review teams, made 60 recommendations comprehensively calling for improvements in mental health and medical services, academic life, student well-being, and mental health awareness and proactive support.

The Cornell administration released the review’s 34-page Final Report in October; at the same time, it announced the creation of an Executive Accountability Committee led by senior academic officials as well as senior administrators overseeing Student & Campus Life and Cornell Health to evaluate and implement the recommendations.

“We commend the mental health review teams for recognizing the seriousness of the challenge and, through extensive research and analysis, providing valuable detailed recommendations to comprehensively address it,” Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, co-founders of The Sophie Fund, said in a written presentation to the Executive Accountability Committee. “We wholeheartedly support the Final Report’s recommendations. The Final Report provides the road map for Cornell to establish a gold standard for collegiate mental health.”

MacLeod and Hack, who established the nonprofit advocacy group in 2016 after the suicide death of their daughter Sophie, who was on a health leave of absence from the School of Architecture, Art, and Planning, thanked Pollack and Vice President for Student & Campus Life Ryan Lombardi for “recognizing the need for continuous attention to student mental health.” They also thanked undergraduate and graduate student organizations who sought change for “representing the voices of Cornell students and especially those in need of mental health support.”

The Sophie Fund presentation agreed with the Final Report’s call for “an enhanced version of excellence, which has as its foundation a healthy educational environment” and with recommendations for academic policies and practices, faculty and staff training and resources, campus collaboration, and communication.

The presentation said that “these recommendations recognize that 1) supporting student mental health requires the coordinated involvement and commitment of administrators, faculty, staff, and students across the schools and the campus; 2) it is a false premise to expect Cornell Health/Counseling and Psychological Services alone to shoulder the responsibility for student mental health; 3) schools and departments must support student mental health through practices that foster community, eliminate undue academic stress, discourage unhealthy competition, and support struggling students; and 4) effective student mental health support today requires a culture change with strong institutional leadership and structured cross-campus collaboration.”

The presentation highlighted 13 priority areas for action as the Executive Accountability Committee considers the Final Report’s recommendations, stressing the need to emphasize “providing real tools, ensuring their actual use, setting concrete goals, and measuring the outcomes and impact.”

“An all-faculty email stressing the value of student mental health gatekeeping may check a box, but it would likely have little, if any, tangible effect,” the presentation said. “Similarly, offering mental health gatekeeper training for faculty would be an excellent step, but it would be meaningless if nobody signed up for it.”

The presentation called on Cornell to ensure “strong leadership and direction from the senior administration to marshal the human effort and financial resources needed to implement improvements and ultimately achieve culture change.” MacLeod and Hack commended Cornell for “quickly establishing” the Executive Accountability Committee to drive improvements.

The Sophie Fund suggested creating a student advocacy office “dedicated to helping students navigate specific institutional challenges and obstacles in academic practices and mental health services, including the Health Leave of Absence process and insurance barriers, that may negatively impact or further undermine their mental health, spoil their positive college experience, and threaten their trajectories into fulfilling adult lives.”

The presentation also stressed the need for new zero-tolerance university regulations and new campus education and awareness programs with the publicly stated goal of terminating the “stubborn normalization” of sexual assault and hazing violence among Cornell students.

Other priority areas cited in The Sophie Fund’s presentation: mandatory training for faculty, staff, and students in ways to identify and help students in need of mental health support; academic policies affecting undergraduate and graduate student wellbeing; clinical best practices; referrals to community mental health providers; health leaves of absence; suicide prevention; healthy campus community life; mental health communications and education; student organizations; and the role of parents and families.

The Final Report cited Cornell PULSE/CUE surveys indicating that the proportion of Cornell undergraduates who reported that they were unable to function academically—missing classes, unable to study or complete homework, etc.—for at least a week in the past year due to depression, stress, or anxiety increased from 33 percent in 2015 to 42 percent in 2019. From Fall 2015 to Fall 2018, individual therapy encounters at CAPS increased 19 percent, the report added.

The 13-member internal Mental Health Review Committee, which included five students, was headed by Marla Love, currently interim dean of students, and Miranda Swanson, associate dean for student services in the College of Engineering. The External Review Team consisted of Michael Hogan, a former commissioner of mental health for New York State, Ohio, and Connecticut (chair); Karen Singleton, chief of Mental Health and Counseling Services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Medical; and Henry Chung, senior medical director of care management organization at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

Click here to read or download The Sophie Fund’s “Perspectives on the Mental Health Review Final Report” presented to the Cornell Executive Accountability Committee on March 1, 2021

Harvard Students: “Widespread Anxiety, Depression, and Loneliness”

The Harvard University administration on July 23, 2020 released the Report of the Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health, which found that Harvard students are experiencing “rising levels of depression and anxiety disorders, and high and widespread levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and other conditions.” The report made eight recommendations and 30 sub-recommendations for improving the university’s support for student mental health.

Harvard University

The 46-page report described a toxic campus culture characterized by stressful academic and social competition, overwhelming workloads, unhealthy faculty-student connections, lack of sleep, isolation and loneliness, fear of failure, financial pressures, worries about job prospects, stigma around mental health, and confusion about when, how, and where to seek help with mental health concerns. The report identified shortcomings in clinical support services.

“People in power should demonstrate that they care about mental health, and I think a cultural change within Harvard as a whole would be important,” said an undergraduate student focus group participant quoted in the report.

The report said that undergraduates reported high levels of stress, overwork, concern about measuring up to peers, and inability to maintain healthy coping strategies. It also found that extracurricular activities at Harvard often represented another source of competition and stress.

Graduate and professional students described high levels of isolation, uncertainty about academic and career prospects, and, among those in PhD programs, financial insecurity and concerns about their relation to advisors, the report said.

The task force was convened by Provost Alan M. Garber and co-chaired by sociology professor Mario Small, Arts and Sciences Dean Emma Dench, and psychology professor Matt Nock. It was led by a 13-member steering committee made up of 10 mostly senior Harvard administrators and faculty members, and three external experts. Eight undergraduate and graduate students served on two working groups alongside administrators and faculty members.

The task force examined data on Harvard’s mental health services, analyzed national and campus surveys, and heard from focus groups representing undergraduate, graduate students, professional students, faculty, and staff. The review was conducted from February 2019 to April 2020. As the task force had completed most of its work before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the report does not recommend pandemic-specific response actions.

The task force’s eight main recommendations:

  • Create a permanent mental health team to implement recommendations, facilitate cross-campus collaboration, produce an annual report, and distribute information on student mental health to students, faculty, and staff.
  • Launch a one-year campaign focused on mental health awareness and culture change.
  • Institute an annual follow-up messaging program focused on mental health awareness and culture change.
  • Examine making Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services (CAMHS) more accessible to students.
  • Examine addressing mental health, sexual climate, inclusiveness, isolation, and sense of belonging holistically.
  • Address potential service gaps between the Academic Resource Center, which provides academic support, and CAMHS, which provides mental health counseling.
  • Examine how to reduce stress caused by the process of competing for entry into extracurricular activities.
  • Provide clear guidance to faculty and graduate students to ease stress caused by advisor-advisee relationships.

Notable sub-recommendations:

  • Encourage open discussion about mental health conditions and struggles; the report cites imposter syndrome (feelings of inadequacy despite success), duck syndrome (appearing calm despite struggling), and Sleep Olympics (glorifying hard work at the expense of healthy sleep).
  • Frame mental health awareness campaigns in terms of flourishing (through healthy behaviors), not illness, toward achieving a cultural shift.
  • Incorporate strong mental health messaging into course syllabi.
  • Consider student well-being in setting assignment deadlines.
  • Consider instituting regular faculty check-ins with students.
  • Distribute a road map for navigating mental health support options.
  • Organize events and discussions that allow students to discuss their challenges openly with others.
  • Improve clinical wait times for initial consultations and ongoing therapy.
  • Ensure counseling staff diversity.
  • Improve the process for referring students to community mental health providers and assisting with related financial costs.
  • Explore the use of digital clinical assessment and intervention tools.
  • Examine how to address mental health, sexual climate, inclusiveness, isolation, and sense of belonging holistically.
  • Explore providing a broader faculty advising support network for students.
  • Encourage programs and departments to develop formal and transparent “rights and responsibilities” guidelines and workplace expectations.
  • Encourage mentorship training for faculty and examine expanding incorporating mentoring into faculty evaluation.
  • Improve understanding of student financial need and examine ways of signposting resources for students in acute financial need.

In assessing the state of student mental health, the report noted that rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions are rising nationally among college students and young adults as a whole. The report went on to describe an increasingly bleak outlook for today’s generation of college students:

“Students across the country are facing structural realities dramatically different from those experienced by previous cohorts. The costs of higher education and housing have soared. The planet has warmed dramatically, and the economic, environmental, and social consequences, now too numerous and too frequent to ignore, have dimmed the aspirations of many who will be forced to deal with the repercussions over their lifetimes. The academic labor market has changed, and while the number of PhD’s has risen dramatically, the number of tenure-track job openings in many fields has shrunk. The changing immigration policy landscape in the U.S. and other countries has unsettled many students and their families. And students were facing all these conditions before the world was forced to confront its worst pandemic nearly a century.”

Undergraduate Students

The report said that from 2014 to 2018, Harvard undergraduates reporting that they have or think they may have depression increased from 22 percent to 31 percent; and those reporting that they have or think they may have an anxiety disorder increased from 19 percent to 30 percent.

In a survey of first year students completed in the first week of classes, 62 percent of students scored in the high range on the UCLA loneliness scale and 61 percent reported frequent or intense feelings of being an imposter, according to the task force. “These concerns do not seem to abate over the course of students’ collegiate careers and likely increase (or fail to buffer against) the negative effects of stress,” the report said.

The task force reported that students do not seem to believe they are getting a clear and consistent message about mental health from the university.

Various forms of stigma continue to prevent students from seeking help, the report said. “Students from families or cultures in which mental illness is stigmatized may find it more difficult to recognize when they are struggling, to seek help, and to get either emotional or financial support from their families while in treatment,” the report said. “And for high-achieving students more generally, it can be a challenge to admit when things are not going well.”

According to the report, students cited the possibility of being put on an involuntary leave as a reason not to seek help.

“Students reported hesitation to disclose their mental health challenges to Harvard-employed counselors and others in the administration, fearing the possibility that they would be asked to leave if they were deemed ‘unsafe’ by CAMHS,” the report said. “Students noted that they may censor what they say to a counselor, or avoid CAMHS altogether, if they think they might be placed on a leave of absence. This situation may leave some of the students most at risk fearful of being open about the depth of their problems.”

Graduate and Professional Students

The report found that Harvard graduate and professional students struggled “within a culture that does not appear to prioritize wellness.” And while graduate students across units struggled with many of the same issues, the report said, schools largely worked in isolation to address the mental health issues for their own student populations.

Approximately 23.6 percent of graduate students responding to a depression screening survey exhibited symptoms of moderate to severe depression, the report said. Similarly, approximately 23.1 percent of graduate students who responded to an anxiety screening survey exhibited symptoms of moderate to severe generalized anxiety.

Across campus, graduate students struggled to establish meaningful connections with peers and mentors, grappled with the feeling that they do not measure up to others in their programs, and worried about making ends meet and finding a job after they graduate, the report said.

Task force focus groups conducted with graduate and professional student populations revealed a strong sense of overcommitment, intense workloads, a feeling that self-worth is linked to academic output, and “that sleep and mental health must be sacrificed for academic success.”

Financial hardship is a major source of stress for many graduate and professional students, the report found. “Students who accumulated debt throughout their graduate studies—in many cases adding to existing debt from undergraduate studies—worried about being able to repay their loans and about the extent to which their loan burden could limit their career choices,” the report said.

Moreover, the task force found, graduate and professional students worried about finding a job after graduation, and many felt pressure to conform to certain expectations about the type of career they will pursue. “Recent years have seen a shrinking of tenure-track positions in many disciplines and fields, causing high levels of stress and anxiety,” the report said.

Students have concerns about displaying weakness or vulnerability in front of both peers and faculty, the task force found. “While student well-being can be bolstered by relationships with faculty that are both personally and professionally supportive, students worry about opening up to faculty who may be in a position to evaluate them either now or in the future,” the report said.

Graduate student surveys revealed a strong correlation between the relationship between a PhD student and their advisor and scores on screening tools for depression, anxiety, self-esteem, and imposter phenomenon, the report said.

In surveys and task force conversations, imposter syndrome emerged as a major factor in graduate students’ mental health, and is likely both a cause and an effect of loneliness, the report said.

Clinical Knowledge, Access and Barriers

CAMHS increased its professional staff by approximately 40 percent since 2015, and as of April 2020 employed 47 mental health clinicians. The CAMHS student to staff ratio is roughly 468 to 1, within the range report by other leading institutions of higher education, according to the report.

Nonetheless, the report said, students who participated in focus groups continued to report difficulty getting a CAMHS appointment in a timely manner, whether for an initial consultation or for ongoing therapy.

Students also cited difficulties when seeking off-campus mental health support. Some reported calling numerous providers only to find that they do not accept insurance, are not taking new patients, or in some cases just do not return the student’s call. “For a student in distress, encountering such hurdles could lead them to give up on finding help,” the report said.

Read: Cornell University Mental Health Review Final Report

Download: Harvard University’s Report of the Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health