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COVID-19 and Graduate Students

By: Graduate students in clinical psychology, behavioral and public health-related programs

Graduate Student Mental Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic 

          The COVID-19 pandemic has created new realities for the entire world. In an effort to support graduate students during this time, The Global Alliance for Behavioral Health and Social Justice invited graduate students via email to participate in a global discussion group to understand how COVID-19 impacts them, their educations, and their communities. Eleven graduate students in total representing the USA, Canada, and Nepal responded to the invitation and participated in the global discussion group. The authors of this blog post represent a portion of the students who participated and moderated the discussion. While multiple concerns were raised throughout the discussion, several key themes emerged, which centered on:
(a) the impact of the pandemic on students’ mental health,
(b) biggest challenges and unanticipated consequences,
(c) considerations for additional and continued support.

The impact of the pandemic on students’ mental health

             Students unanimously felt that the pandemic is taking a toll on their mental health by increasing experiences of depression, stress, and anxiety. Most students also reported a lack of mental health support in their respective programs. Specifically, students expressed being underinsured or lacking insurance as major barriers to accessing mental health care. Some students noted that while their institution offers on-campus mental health services, they do not feel comfortable utilizing them because they serve as training sites for themselves, peers, and colleagues, which creates concerns regarding multiple roles/relationships, privacy, and confidentiality.

Challenges and unanticipated consequences

          Communication and expectations. Many students identified a disconnect between how their institution and program faculty responded to the pandemic. Inadequate and inconsistent responses from institutions and faculty members contributed to heightened feelings of distress, uncertainty about work expectations, and greater pressure to be productive among graduate students. For instance, many institutional initiatives prioritized undergraduate students leaving graduate students feeling overlooked and unsupported.
          Limited and inconsistent communication regarding academic expectations during the pandemic was also a concern and source of distress. Some advisors encourage graduate students to rest and understand the importance of doing so. However, when the behavior is not modeled by these advisors, other faculty members, and peers, students find it challenging and uncomfortable to take time away from their work responsibilities.

            Transitional challenges and financial burdens. Transitioning to virtual learning, teaching, and telehealth is an ongoing challenge for students in classes, clinical training, and conducting laboratory research. In addition to transitional challenges, students are experiencing increased financial burden related to loss of academic funding and familial and partner unemployment. These COVID-19-related stressors are further amplified by concurrent social and systemic health inequities and widespread civil unrest. In the face of these multifaceted challenges, students remain resilient by seeking peer and mentor support, engaging in hobbies, and practicing self-care.         

Going Forward…
          As we approach the new academic term, it’s important to recognize that this is a uniquely challenging time to be a graduate student. In addition to the regular demands of graduate training, we must take into account contextual factors that affect student success and mental health.

We recommend the following considerations for institutions and faculty/staff working with graduate students:

●      Consider how ableism and other intersecting oppressions (such as, but not limited to, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia) may emerge in communication with graduate students about work and course expectations. Graduate students come from a range of backgrounds and experiences, and they should not feel pressured to compromise or risk their health because they are worried about being negatively evaluated or missing opportunities.
●      Disseminate a concrete plan to dismantle racism within graduate programs, academic departments, and institutions as a whole and outline actionable steps that institutions and individuals can take to address racial inequities

●      Initiate and establish communication that is frequent, timely, and sincere from institutions and advisors to students to alleviate anxiety, stress, and uncertainty around coursework, research and other student responsibilities.
●      Protections for research and stipend funding for students and ensure that funding is maintained during the pandemic.
●      Elicit feedback from graduate students one-on-one and in an anonymous survey about their experiences, stressors, and needs during the pandemic.
●      Provide transparent and up-to-date resource databases for students, including but not limited to: short term jobs, grants, food security, mental health services, housing resources, open source software.
●      Provide resources regarding mental health services offered outside of the institution to accommodate graduate students who may have concerns related to multiple roles and relationships, confidentiality, and privacy.
●      Explicit recognition of the vital role graduate students play in the university and community, from teaching to providing community health services.
●      Be flexible and open with student expectations regarding face-to-face interactions (e.g., classes, practicum, office hours, etc.).
●      Update contracts and expectations for students engaging in clinical training that reflect COVID-19 challenges, such as ensuring that clinical training sites have resources and safety protections for trainees.

Student coauthors:

Mia Campbell, BSc., Spatial Epidemiology Intern - Columbia Mailman School of Public Health,  Fulbright Nehru Fellow
Cori Tergesen, MSc., M.A., Clinical and Community Psychology PhD - DePaul University
Kirby Magid, M.A., Health Psychology PhD - University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Nadha Hassen, MPH, PhD student - York University
Michelle Paluszek, B.A., Clinical Psychology M.A. - University of Regina
Alexis Mitchell, B.S., Clinical Health Psychology PhD - University of North Carolina at Charlotte

This blog is a snapshot of the experience of graduate students. We recognize there may be unique or additional challenges that are not considered in this blog. The recommendations are provided from the perspectives of eleven student representatives and their experiences at their institutions.

GA at UN: Making a commitment to the SDGs

by Evelyn P. Tomaszewski

 Making the commitment to the SDGs:  Universities and Beyond. 

On July 9, 2020, The United Nations Institute for training and research (UNITAR) convened a panel entitled Teaching, Learning, and Integrating the SDGs at Universities and Beyond; using SDG 4 as the springboard for discussion.  As a social worker and educator, I was pleased to hear about both the efforts within the academy and the commitment to honoring and including live-long learning (LLL) in the conversation. 

Panelists provided a wide-range of ideas, possibilities and opportunities for educators to integrate SDGs in the classroom, research, community outreach, and engagement, as well as in the over-all campus operations.  For example, Chadrinka Bahadur –(SDG Academy)  asked us to think of: How do we help students to partner the reality of time and energy to delve into a particular subject of their course with the importance of their understanding the full breadth of the SDGs? Bahadur noted that while students are there to ‘master’ a particular topic or discipline, the success of the SDGs do not allow a ‘pick and choose’ approach.  While she noted an interdisciplinary approach is critical, it became clear from the panelist comments and participants chat that to truly achieve the SDGs, we as faculty, staff, and students must work to have universities commit to breaking through the silos that exist by the very nature of the structure (and funding sources) typical of) higher education.   

Joanna Newman, Secretary-General, Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) provided a clear example of Institutional commitment at the leadership level, by mapping the university efforts (e.g., identifying contributions, cross-disciplinary efforts) with the recognition that universities and colleges are often actual town or cities, and therefore have the civic responsibility to look at their own footprint.  She stressed the critical importance of inclusion of the arts and social sciences in this interdisciplinary work, including research.  A dynamic conversation was simultaneously happening in the chatroom, where I noted that “As an educator – approaching SDGs from a human rights lens – we must use the ‘classroom’ (of diverse ages and experiences and cultural context) as a way to bridge the students  own interests and research areas to the intersectionality of the SDGs - and that students are also stakeholders in the defining community-centered policy AND practice.”

In a brief presentation entitled “Integrating the SDGs at universities and beyond”,  Katarina Popovic, Secretary-General, ICAE, noted the current context of a global public health crisis finds systemic failures and challenges being faced by universities; and higher education must be open to explore and be critical of current models. She noted that now is the time to Think about and Rethink the SDGs.

I agree that now is the time for universities- whether as members of a community or large enough to be viewed as a stand-alone community – must commit to assessing and addressing the structural and systemic issues that have long been at the root of every inequity that hinders the achievements of the SDGs. This commitment will require working across disciplines and across continents. One example is the Global Alliance for Behavioral Health and Social Justice Global Mental Health Task Force, comprised of a diverse group of disciplines, committed to building partnerships with practitioners in university settings across the globe, working to support “Making the SDGs a Reality”.

Evelyn P. Tomaszewski, MSW

Co-Chair, Global Mental Health Task Force, Global Alliance