Graduate Student Mental Health Task Force issues first-year report


A task force charged with identifying changes to better support graduate student mental health at the University of Michigan has released its first-year report, outlining 10 recommendations for individuals, programs and the university.

The Rackham Graduate School established the diverse, multidisciplinary Graduate Student Mental Health Task Force in June 2019, consisting of faculty, staff, mental health professionals and graduate students. Its goal was to help identify changes for Rackham, graduate programs, faculty mentors and graduate students.

Recent reports show the prevalence of mental health conditions is twice as high among graduate students as among comparable segments of the general population. U-M doctoral students have also reported declining mental health throughout their programs, affecting their personal well-being, as well as their academic experience and progress.

“The charge of the task force was to identify the major factors that influence graduate student mental health and identify changes we can implement at every level that can better support them,” said Rackham Dean Mike Solomon, who accepted each of the recommendations and pledged Rackham’s support for them.

“Mental health is an issue we can only address in partnership with one another, something the task force members achieved every day. Given the capacity of Rackham staff, the task force, and our community — and the fact that some of the recommendations build upon each other — we will begin work on seven of them in the next year.”

The recommendations to be pursued in 2020-21 are:

  • Creating a standing committee focused on graduate student mental health and wellness.
  • Amending the Rackham Program Review to include questions about the mental health and wellness climate within graduate programs.
  • Creating a resource map.
  • Creating a Graduate Student Mental Health and Wellness Advocate Program.
  • Developing programs focused on preventing and addressing toxic program climates.
  • Increasing awareness of existing resources for individual graduate students, and developing additional skill-building programs for individual graduate students.
  • Strongly encouraging graduate programs to require mentoring plans for all graduate students.

Those to be pursued after 2020-21 are:

  • Creating staff positions at Rackham to allow for centralization of efforts to better support graduate student mental health and well-being.
  • Using an integrative approach to increasing access to long-term care.
  • Changes to leave policies, including the creation of a shorter-term (four to six weeks) leave option.

In addition to the recommendations, the task force also called on Rackham and individual U-M graduate programs to prioritize graduate student mental health and well-being alongside academic success, and to reduce the inequities faced by marginalized and underrepresented groups.

“I’m really hopeful that these recommendations will lead to changes that will better support graduate students here at Michigan,” said Meghan Duffy, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and the task force’s chair. “The task force is eager to see these recommendations implemented, especially since we realize that graduate students are facing even more stressors now than they were when we began this work.”

One recommendation relates to the critical relationship between mental health and advising and mentoring support.

The report describes how clear expectations and lines of communication are key to a healthy mentoring relationship, and the role that written mentoring agreements can play between faculty and students in creating such a relationship.

Moving forward, Rackham will work with graduate programs, its faculty-led mentoring committee and the Rackham Executive Board to create a normative expectation for the presence of written mentoring agreements in all doctoral programs, and a shared understanding of the critical roles and responsibilities of graduate faculty in this work.

Another recommendation is to create a program of graduate student mental health and wellness advocates who have the knowledge and tools to assist graduate programs in supporting students during stressful times and as they navigate their academic progress.

These advocates — working within programs — can provide local sources of expertise and experience that can connect graduate faculty to the broader array of university resources, including mental health and resolution staff professionals across campus.

The recommendations were developed through the collection of campuswide feedback from graduate students and faculty, a comprehensive review of existing literature on mental health in higher education, and by engaging with individuals focused on graduate student mental health at other institutions.

In response to the recommendations, Rackham staff will work with the task force to establish a standing committee on graduate student mental health to take over the task force’s work beginning in the 2021–22 academic year.

“We look forward to working with Professor Duffy and the rest of the task force over the next year to implement their recommendations,” Solomon said. “This work stands to benefit the entire Rackham community and ensure that our students can not only acquire the skills and expertise to help solve pressing challenges around the world, but can do so without sacrificing their mental health and well-being.”

The full report is available online, along with a resource created by the task force to provide guidance on principles, approaches, and strategies that mentors and graduate programs can use as they support students.


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