Academia and mental health: A social scientist’s tips for graduate students

June 5, 2020 - Liz Schondelmayer, Delia Fernandez

Dr. Delia Fernandez (pictured left) is an assistant professor of History at Michigan State University. Her recent chapter, You’re Going to Need a Team, featured in anthology Degrees of Difference, discusses her challenges and triumphs as a first-generation graduate student of color. In it, she explains the importance of community support and self-care for her success in academia. 

What barriers did you face within academia as a woman of color, and how did those affect your mental health?

There are a lot of aspects about academia that people assume you know because you got into graduate school. As a first generation college student, there were so many unwritten rules and information that I was simply unaware of that other students learned from parents or networks.  

I suffered greatly from imposter syndrome. Despite excelling in my undergraduate program, participating in a graduate school preparation program, and earning the support of my undergraduate department and other mentors, I was constantly worried that people thought I did not belong in graduate school because I did not know many of these unwritten rules about academia. 

For example, I often felt like graduate programs assumed students understood the hierarchy of the university. I was  lost trying to figure out who made the decisions that affected me as a graduate student. In other cases, other graduate students assumed I had read all the same work they had and seemed to look down on me when I told them I had not. Though I had read other literature and was very prepared intellectually for graduate school, I still felt behind. 

Lastly, in many situations, even the language and in particular, the jargon people used in our department, was foreign to me, even though I am a native English speaker and so were most people in the room. All of this combined to make me feel like I simply did not belong in graduate school.

How did support from a team/mentor improve your mental health?

My mentors helped to assure me that what I was going through was absolutely normal and that they too had felt that way at some point. Moreover, they also normalized counseling and self-love. They suggested group counseling for advanced graduate students and informed me about spaces in which I could develop my confidence, such as conferences that focused on women of color in academia. 

What can professors do to support the mental health and well-being of their graduate students, especially students of color?

The first step is to be as transparent as possible to provide graduate students with some sort of stability. For example, if the academic job market will not have many options, then advisors need to pass that information along to the students and work diligently to help prepare them for work outside of academia.

Advisors can also be mindful of the unique challenges their grad students are facing and be willing to connect students with resources. I also suggest that professors and departments support programs that are aimed at supporting graduate students of color. For example, at Michigan State, we have the Womxn of Color Initiatives that provides programming for women of color at the undergraduate, graduate, faculty and staff level. 

Lastly, I would especially encourage professors to be familiar with what mental health services are available for graduate students and to talk openly about mental health resources with their graduate students. 

 How can mental health care be more accessible for graduate students?

Universities need to invest in their mental health services. They need to have ample providers who understand graduate school and the specific stressors graduate students face. 

Michigan State has a plethora of group counseling opportunities for undergrads and some specifically directed at graduate students, which students can find here.  Mental health services could also offer ways for graduate students to connect with a provider who speaks the same native language.

Lastly, Universities should also include robust insurance coverage for mental health services. There are numerous studies that cite how stressful our industry can be, and cost should never keep graduate students from accessing needed services. 

What free or low-cost self-care activities would you suggest for grad students who are trying to save money?

I would suggest graduate students seek out community in a variety of ways. Graduate students should build social networks of other graduate students who can understand the very unique challenges they face. At the same time, I also suggest graduate students have a community outside of academia as a reminder that their studies are only a part of their life and not their entire life. 

With the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, there are more free or low cost services available to people. For example, actress and advocate, Taraji P. Henson, has created an initiative to get underserved communities access to free, online therapy services, which graduate students of color could potentially benefit from.  

Access “Degrees of Difference” featuring “You’re Going to Need a Team” by Dr. Fernandez here.