Graduate students are facing a mental health crisis. What is UC Berkeley doing to help?

Graduate Student well-being is a problem on campus.
Nishali Naik/Senior Staff

All over the country, graduate students serve as the connective tissue that holds college campuses together. While keeping research labs running and teaching undergraduate sections, these students are also trying to attain the skills needed to be considered experts in their fields.

And they’re struggling.

A major study published in Nature Biotechnology on March 6, titled “Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education,” found that more than a third of graduate students report moderate to severe depression. More than 40 percent reported anxiety in the moderate to severe range.

For UC Berkeley specifically, a 2014 report by the Graduate Assembly paints an even bleaker picture: Between 42 and 48 percent of UC Berkeley doctoral students in science and engineering are depressed. In the arts and humanities, that number skyrockets to 64 percent.

That was about three years ago — but in the years since, Berkeley has seen its housing crises undergo jarring exacerbations. As of February 2018, the Zillow Rent Index for a one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley has risen to $2,871 per month, nearly double what it was in 2014.  

Glassdoor, meanwhile, places the median monthly graduate student salary at UC Berkeley at $2,614 per month — about $200 less than that average rent.

rent-berkeley

Yet housing insecurity is only one of the many stressors graduate students report as contributing to their overall physical and mental health.

The Daily Californian conducted an anonymous survey of campus graduate students and received 140 responses, spanning 21 campus departments.

The results were startling, indicating potential shortcomings that include little oversight of adviser-advisee relationships, wide disparities in experiences among graduate students within departments, lack of connection with a broader graduate student community on campus and few departmental workshops and events dedicated to LGBTQ+ and minority inclusion.

Responses to all of these topics also varied widely by department, pointing to a lack of unifying standards for how individual departments provide for their graduate student populations.

According to Kena Hazelwood-Carter, outgoing president of the Graduate Assembly, or GA, lack of consistency in graduate services and experiences across departments and academic units around campus is one of the largest issues precipitating the crisis.

“Some (academic units) have their own equity and inclusion dean; others barely have a committee that ever meets,” Hazelwood-Carter said in an interview. “Even for those who might be very well-versed about things in their own academic unit, they can’t begin to give advice to somebody who’s not in that same unit.”

Amy Honigman, a senior clinical psychologist and UC Berkeley alumna, is well aware of these concerns — she is the lone psychologist on campus currently dedicated specifically to its more than 11,000 graduate students. The position (run through the Graduate Assembly Wellness Center as a satellite office of Counseling and Psychological Services, or CPS) was only inaugurated a few months ago — created in part because of the troubling reports of the GA study in 2014. Honigman has been working at UC Berkeley for about six years in various capacities.

“What I, ideally, would like to do is get to every department and say ‘I’m here’ and ‘What else do you need for your mental health support?’ ” Honigman said in an interview. “But I don’t know that across the campus it’s been recognized by faculty and staff as needing more attention, needing more support.”

Graduate students can now make appointments to meet with Honigman one-on-one, in addition to using the several free counseling visits to the University Health Services Tang Center.

Erin Greer, Gerard Ramm and Amanda Su are all graduate students in the English department; all three have pursued counseling, whether on or off campus, and indicated that doing so is common among their cohort. “A lot of the people that I know are in counseling of some form,” Su said in an interview.

“A lot of the people that I know are in counseling of some form.”

— Amanda Su

While Greer is glad such services exist, she is also concerned that counseling is so necessary for so many students. Housing, leveraged against graduate student pay, is also a large concern for many students, Greer and Su included.

“I’ve lived in an apartment that has made me have chronic illness because I can’t keep it free of mold,” Greer explained. “There are a lot of compounding ways that housing impacts a person’s well-being.”

Su, meanwhile, lives in UC Berkeley-run graduate housing. “My rent is comparable to what I would be getting outside, which I feel like is preposterous,” Su said. She lives in a single, in a suite shared by five roommates. 

On the flipside of graduate students’ expenses is their stipends. At UC Berkeley, the median yearly stipend for graduate students is $31,000, but that number varies widely by department. Su uses the example of her friends in smaller departments such as art history. “Our methodologies are extremely similar; we’re looking at similar things,” she said, but “they make $10,000 to $12,000 less than I do per year.”

Greer added that when departments institute new funding policies, it can leave already-present graduate students in the same department behind. “I make the wage that the union negotiates, which means I probably make $10,000 less than (Su),” Greer explained. “I was around before the department started to institute this top-up model that it currently has.”

Sarah Stoller, a fifth-year doctoral student in the history department, shared similar concerns with the students in the English department — when incoming cohorts in history get better funding offers, students already in the department don’t see a raise. “There’s this imbalance for the same work,” Stoller said. She makes $22,000 a year and says her department only acknowledged that that is not livable in the past year or two. “That’s not to say that they’re offering any fixes,” she added. “It remains to be seen what they’re willing and able to do about it.”

Some departments do raise the stipends of current students when funding increases for new students — according to Ramm, the sociology department might be one such example.

But across departments, graduate students in the Daily Cal survey indicated that their stipends were not sufficient to cover living expenses, answering, on average, 2.9 out of 7.0 when asked to rate agreement with the statement, “Graduate students in my department are paid enough to live comfortably in Berkeley.” Many graduate students take out loans and hold jobs off campus to help pay the bills, in addition to their graduate student instructor and researcher positions.

coloredited_ariellung_gradstudents

While the daily concerns of monetary reality press constantly on the graduate student population, internal department dynamics and graduate student responsibilities also contribute to the degradation of mental health among graduate students.

“I think there’s a lot of this conception that graduate work is like an apprenticeship rather than a job,” Su said, “and that part of your training is just that you have to put up with stuff that nobody else would put up with.”

According to Stoller, a recent survey conducted within the history department found that when asked to rate stress and anxiety on a scale from 1 to 7 (with 7 being the highest), the average response was a 5 or 6. “I was really struck by that; that was scary to see,” Stoller said. “People aren’t generally happy or doing well.”

Hazelwood-Carter contends: “In graduate school, you are given a very clear message, which is that you are supposed to be able to find the answer. And that often gets translated as ‘You must get the answer by yourself.’ ”

According to Hazelwood-Carter, that mentality then “supersedes people’s willingness or feeling like they can or should be able to seek help from any sort of external resource. … There’s this culture of silence that we have, that beyond just stigma is this feeling of ‘I have failed if I need to get help from someone else.’ ”

“There’s this culture of silence that we have, that beyond just stigma is this feeling of ‘I have failed if I need to get help from someone else.’ “

— Kena Hazelwood Carter

But Hazelwood-Carter warns that this line of thought is often used to unfairly place the onus of seeking mental health care on students. “It’s not just about stigma, it’s about actual institutional barriers to help-seeking, and then we want to blame the individual if they don’t go and get the help that they need,” she explained.

Those barriers are wide-ranging and numerous, according to Hazelwood-Carter: “I think a lot of it is the fact that that we don’t do a good job of making resources visible; we don’t have enough points of entry; we don’t have ways of holding people accountable if they do decide to discriminate against their students because they express these needs.”

Ultimately, Hazelwood-Carter argues that the campus doesn’t properly integrate incoming graduate students on campus. “If you don’t know where Tang is or know that there’s a CPS satellite office in the building next to yours, it becomes that much harder for you to even go out and get the help you need,” she said.

That claim is borne out by the Daily Cal survey, which asked whether students felt “well-connected to a community of graduate students outside (their) department,” to which the average response was a 3.3 out of 7.0, indicating widespread disagreement.

Additionally, mentoring — a central tenant of the graduate school experience — appears to be woefully undermanaged at the university level, based on comments by graduate students we talked to in interviews and who filled out the survey. “There’s very little oversight, at least in our department, when it comes to mentoring,” Su said. “Most of what I know about what’s expected of me, or what I should be doing at what point, is knowledge that I’ve received from people who are a few years above me in the program.”

“There’s very little oversight, at least in our department, when it comes to mentoring.”

— Amanda Su

Stoller also points to that relationship as being a key factor in graduate student well-being. “I have a great adviser; I feel very strongly that he is aware of the challenges and issues that I confront,” Stoller said. “But I think there are people who are less invested in having those conversations with their students or trying to think through what their students are experiencing.”

In our survey, students rated their agreement with the statement “My department works to ensure advisor-student relationships are equitable and successful” a 3.5 out of 7.0. The average response (with each department equally weighted) to “I feel that graduate student wellbeing is a priority to faculty and staff members in my department” was a 3.7 out of 7.0.

Hazelwood-Carter discussed two central issues with the current advising paradigm. On the student side, she points to the fact that students feel (not unrightfully) that advisers have the power to open a career to them, and thus, they don’t want to do anything that might make those professors not want to continue supporting and advocating for them.

Meanwhile, Hazelwood-Carter contends that on the university level, rumors and claims about bad actors are often swept under the rug because those faculty members are distinguished and the campus wants to keep those accolades in-house. “Even if there were better mechanisms in place to keep them accountable, they might not be used,” Hazelwood-Carter warned.

Even beyond bad actors, there is little in place institutionally to help well-meaning advisers mentor successfully. “As an institution, we don’t do a good job of teaching (professors) how to be a good adviser,” Hazelwood-Carter said, noting that academic literature on the matter does exist. “What we’re finding is that advisers aren’t necessarily opting in to what training is already there,” she continued.

That aspect is one that Honigman is focused on. “One of the things that I think is really important is to look at the relationships between advisers and graduate students, and get a better way of it all working together,” she said. “There’s no question graduate students have to work hard. But is there a problem with a cultural shift, though, in recognizing that (advisers can) still have expectations, but be compassionate?”

“There’s no question graduate students have to work hard. But is there a problem with a cultural shift, though, in recognizing that (advisers can) still have expectations, but be compassionate?”

— Amy Honigman

That said, some hope can be found in the survey results — the one statement garnering resounding agreement from those polled was “My advisor has empathy for my experience as a student,” for which the average response was a 5.5 out of 7.0.

Higher pay, consistent advising and housing relief seem to be some of the universal requests from graduate students on what would improve their well-being. While the UC system has a graduate student union that fights for higher wages, it appears little has been done at the system or departmental level to ensure that students don’t have to fight for a livable wage. Less still has been done to actively monitor graduate students’ mental health. “What has to happen to get people to pay attention to this?” Honigman asked, referring to UC Berkeley’s status as a research institution and its overall lack of research being done on graduate student well-being.

Hazelwood-Carter thinks the only way might be through the only language the campus understands: money. “It’s a loss of investment on the part of the university” when graduate students are suffering, unproductive or choosing not to come, she explained. “I hate the idea of reducing human beings into numbers and dollars and cents, but if that’s the only language that we can get the university to hear, then let’s speak that language. Because these people need to have a better place to be.”

Several students interviewed mentioned the issues facing graduate students being severe enough that prospective students should even consider not attending.

“It shouldn’t be this stressful; it shouldn’t be this bad,” Ramm said. “I used to tell people that graduate school was a great place to be at, because there’s job security for at least five years, and it’s not like being on the outside. I don’t so much say that anymore.”

“I used to tell people that graduate school was a great place to be at, because there’s job security for at least five years, and it’s not like being on the outside. I don’t so much say that anymore.”

— Gerard Ramm

As Greer and Hazelwood-Carter both noted, all of these issues discussed disproportionately affect graduate students of color, those with LGBTQ+ identities, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those with disabilities.

“(UC Berkeley) is not seeing what we uniquely bring to the table,” Hazelwood-Carter said. “Not understanding and upgrading the definition of what it means to be a graduate student, and changing how we see graduate students and support them to match our current model — that’s where the university is failing. That’s where we’re seeing people fall through the cracks, because that’s where those cracks exist. (That model) was never set up to support who we have on campus today.”

But perhaps things are starting to change. With the conversation about mental health now reaching scientific journals and national outlets, and with the hiring of a graduate student-oriented psychologist, steps are being made to at least understand what is driving poor mental health among graduate students. Some UC Berkeley students even took matters into their own hands, forming a support network that now extends farther than our campus.

Hopefully, UC Berkeley will now be willing to dedicate the resources necessary to provide preventative and interventive mental health care and to start deconstructing the long-standing model of graduate school that systematically places its students in positions that breed stress, anxiety and depression.

Mariah De Zuzuarregui, Katrina Fadrilan, Kesh Wang, Benson Yi, Fionce Siow, AJ Newcomb and Anna Ho contributed to this report.

Results of our anonymous survey

In addition to the numeric responses to the 10-question survey, graduate students had the option of leaving an anonymous response. We have published some of those here, stripping any identifiable information where necessary.

“There isn’t much quality control here (equitable advising), but, to be honest, I’m not sure how it would be enforced, beyond suggesting expectations.”

— English doctoral student

“I can’t speak for all students of course, but it seems clear that some of my fellow classmates are struggling. I have been through enough counseling to know what I need to do to keep myself well and keeping negative thoughts in check, but I don’t think that’s the status quo.”

— public policy master’s student

“It all depends on money. No matter how many department run orientations are offered on this particular aspect of grad life or that one nothing will change until the University changes its budgetary priorities and pays student workers, GSRs, and graduate students a real living wage and real benefits. Not doing so contributes to chronic stress amongst the graduate population and any number of workshops are pretty much just a salve for a problem rooted in material conditions.”

—  English doctoral student

“The fact that in Civil (and Environmental Engineering), offices for graduate students do not have an ounce of natural light is a shame. Many countries actually enforce this requirement for offices in Europe. It is a shame that absolutely no effort is made on that matter.”

— civil and environmental engineering doctoral student

“There’s intense stigma about openly discussing quality of life issues, including working under intense competitive pressure while subsisting on wages hovering right at the poverty line.”

— English doctoral student

“Students in my cohort are overworked and there seems to be limited oversight of mental health.”

— public policy master’s student

“It cannot be disentangled from our material conditions // the devaluation of our labor and the struggles we have to pay rent, buy food, and also be good teachers and researchers. good faith negotiations over wages, housing, healthcare, leaves, sexual harassment, etc., between the UC and our union would be a great step forward.”

— English doctoral student

“Generally, across the friends I have who are comfortable talking about these issues, student wellbeing appears to be poor. Amongst PhD students in STEM fields, the pressure for results can be intense, especially when one is working alone and cannot easily get help from the expertise that we have in other departments.”

— civil and environmental engineering doctoral student

“Graduate students keep this university running. We are a large public institution and Berkeley is charged with certain responsibilities and obligations as such. What few undergrads recognize is the lack of support their GSIs and TAs and Readers receive from the University and the various departments. I can’t speak to the experience of PhD candidates outside of the English department, but I can say that in my department, graduate student wellbeing is at the bottom of the list of institutional priorities.

Administrators, so-called mentors, and graduate colleagues alike are equally responsible for the toxic culture that currently exists in English at UC Berkeley. We are the top department in the country, yet our graduate students, who keep this large department afloat through their unpaid teaching and mentoring of undergrads are treated like third class citizens. I’ve been witness to the sort of hazing in graduate study at UC Berkeley that would be front page news on the New York Times or ESPN if it involved the basketball team.

Our advisors work against us. Our colleagues work against us. We are working 40-80 hours a week as GSIs and TAs in the English department and compensated for 20. There is a rampant culture of white male privilege in the English department and it impacts graduate student wellbeing in horrifying ways. The English PhD candidate who is reading your papers, leading your section, or teaching your R1A/R1B course is unsupported, unimportant, and literally exploited by UC Berkeley–the largest employer in the state of California last time I checked.

While faculty can earn 6 figure salaries in this department and administrators at Cal early 7 figure salaries, their cushy lifestyle rests on the exploitation of an army of low wage laborers who are expected to grin and bare it because we are have the “privilege” of earning a degree at Berkeley (in spite of the fact that most PhD students here had fabulous offers from other private peer institutions when they entered Berkeley and the profession).

At the same time, we are paid hourly wages lower than a Starbucks manager and we are forced into greater debt each and every year just to make ends meet for ourselves (and our families) in pursuit of a degree that will NEVER earn us enough money to pay back our loans and buy a home or send our own children to college, especially in urban and coastal areas like the San Francisco Bay Area. Why is the American Dream an impossibility for grad students in the English Department? How does this affect graduate student “wellbeing” on campus?

The answer to the second question should be obvious: the sense of despair and hopelessness is pervasive and palpable among advanced graduate students entering the job market. As for the first question: the out of step and out of time tenured faculty members who earn those high salaries in my department will literally die before they retire–and before they die they have made it their life mission to take out their own frustrations and insecurities on the young academics beneath them.

Yet grad students in English continue to choose Berkeley, both because we are coerced into these programs as young, ignorant, often first generation, idealistic scholars, and because we are passionate about advancing the frontiers of cultural  knowledge (research) or we believe in the educational mission of a public institution like Cal (teaching). Either way, any question about the wellbeing of graduate students at UC Berkeley could also be referred to Bernie Madoff’s former clients. Like them, we were tricked into a pyramid scheme that benefits only those at the top while many of those at the bottom are poised to lose everything following hucksters and frauds in the the guise of tenured faculty, experts in the field, and mentors.”

— English doctoral student

Imad Pasha is the Weekender editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @prappleizer.

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  • Susan

    The same day this article was published, a group of faculty in Gender and Women’s Studies and the HIFIS Disability Studies Research Cluster, with funding from VCEI Dubon’s office, sponsored a workshop in Wheeler Hall with three visitors, Mimi Khu, Tammy Ho and Eliza Noh, on topics related to the special issue put out by the Asian American Literary Review in 2016: “Open in Emergency: A Special Issue on Asian American Mental Health.” The workshop combined presentations, discussion and visual arts and writing, materials and activities that, as the members of the AIE collective put it,
    aimed to “decolonize mental health and open up a wealth of new approaches.” The group focused on new
    ways of understanding mental illness in the context of social factors in
    the production of mental wellness and unwellness, with a goal of
    empowering people to make informed decisions regarding their own mental
    health and to imagine new ways people on this campus can provide meaningful support for each other. It was a powerful experience for everyone there, I think. Many participants signed up to follow-up with further gatherings; if you are interested in taking part next fall, please contact me at [email protected]. Susan Schweik, Professor of English

  • That Guy

    They could be more proactive by reducing the number of students with mental health problems admitted. Admittedly this would decimate the DC editorial staff but it would be for the good of all students.