Disruptions, mental health, and graduate student experiences during the Pandemic by Nathan Eli Thayer

It is certainly easy – and honestly exhausting – to talk about disruptions and encounters with grief today. The disruptions imposed by the continued growth of a largely unchecked and mismanaged pandemic in the United States allows for anxiety, grief, depression, and uncertainty to creep into our everyday lives. The impacts of life with covid-19 on mental health are acutely felt across the general population. Here, I want to briefly speak to graduate student experiences brought forth by the pandemic. Within academia travel restrictions, campus shutdowns, and budgetary shortfalls are fueling rising rates of poor mental health among graduate students (a population which already experiences higher rates of mental health difficulties when compared to the average U.S. citizen).

Speaking to my own experience, I have deeply felt the disruptions of the pandemic in my own body, layering onto already existing mental health struggles. I felt the growing anxious energy fueled by the daily uncertainty of “what comes next?” I grieved the complete dissolution of my planned dissertation research – truly grieved – feeling the fatigue and emptiness as a pit and a weight tying me down. As I sat in uncertainty, grasping for new ideas for my research, the usual whispers of imposter syndrome (a familiar experience to many graduate students) grew into a loud chorus that filled my head.

These are not my experiences alone. They are felt and experienced (albeit, differently) by a great number of graduate students. Maybe your field season had to either be cut short or skipped altogether. Maybe the isolation of the lockdown has left you distracted, unmotivated, and distressed. Possibly, you are able to enter (or, are told you have to enter) your lab but feel growing anxiety over your own safety. Or, as I have experienced, you have had to jettison or drastically reduce your thesis or dissertation project. The effects of covid-19 on the research activities of graduate students has sown wholesale uncertainty. Additionally, according at a recent study the number of graduate students experiencing prolonged major depressive periods is twice as high in 2020 as it was in 2019, with 1.5 times higher reporting of generalized anxiety over the same time period. All of these possibilities (and many more) are stacked on top of fears of losing a loved one, financial instability, the loneliness of isolation, and the dread of a collapsing job market, compounding the pandemic induced anxiety and depression felt by graduate students (as well as faculty, staff, and undergraduates).

I am excited to see that there are some efforts, led by institutions and/or graduate students themselves, towards tackling the rise of mental distress among graduate populations but acknowledge (given the data on rising mental distress) that we have not yet done enough. We need academic administrators to center mental health as part of their recovery plans. When this isn’t done, faculty, students, and staff need to continue to pressure their institutions to become more caring spaces and create networks of support for all members of the academic community.

Here I can offer no advice on how to navigate the seemingly continuous assaults on mental health during this pandemic. I hope, as well, that this does not come across as an anguished scream into the void. In my experience I have had to learn how to give myself what I need. To allow myself to grieve and accept the change in my research; to be better about reaching out and accepting help; and to simply be kind to myself (a struggle, to be sure). Uncertainty and generalized anxiety still creep into the four walls I am isolating in, there is no quick and easy solution to dealing with poor mental health. I just wanted to say to take care of yourself, be kind to yourself, know that you alone aren’t struggling.