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Did You Ask About the Grad Program’s Mental and Emotional Support?

A potential grad student I met with a few weeks ago said, I'm a first generation college student, so I know there are probably a lot of questions I'm not thinking to ask. Maybe you can tell me the answer to one of them without me asking it.

Did you ask us about our mental and emotional support of grad students? We don't believe in lone ethnographer pull yourself up by the bootstraps anthropology. It's dangerous for your health, and it's bad for scholarship.

Grad school can be a very lonely place. Most students go from being the smartest kid in their class without even trying to being completely average. We don't pit our students against each other, but it is still very hard to ramp up your game that fast, especially at such a young, vulnerable, and largely untested age.

Furthermore, college inculcates or at least perpetuates anxiety and depression in those susceptible by default---our goal as instructors being to train students to develop compassion and critical thinking skills. We all but tell students to care a lot about everything, worry a lot, and try to save the world. It's a recipe for disaster.

Finally, anthropology studies how families and communities and health systems and such work among peoples of the world. What about among us? Why are we so good as parsing it out there and so bad at seeing how we perpetuate poor emotional and mental health within our own systems and departments?

Unsure we're so troubled? Just a few data points then. US teen and young adults suicide rates have been rising the past few decades, according to an October 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. My colleagues and I studied work-life balance among anthropologists a few years ago and found, unsurprisingly, that grad students have lower sense of balance and higher stress than professional by a wide margin and across all categories.

Finally, so many of us have experienced the emotional toll personally way too much and seen the damage firsthand. A grad student from a cohort a year or so after me who shared my same adviser took his own life during graduate school. Just a few weeks ago, a teenage boy at my children's high school did the same.

I imagine students feel like they are making themselves look weak or unstable if they ask about mental and emotional support, so I am happy to bring it up. We do our best to support our students. We are there to help guide you, not torture you. We will be watching for warning signs and trying to reassure students that the sadness associated with academic stress is temporary. We try to keep students working with each other, not in competition, and to support each other. We do our best to provide funding so you don't have to worry about that too. We keep our doors open and are there to talk and have plenty of tissues. It's fine. It's normal. Use them.

If you have anxiety or depression in grad school, you're not alone, you're in the majority. And we should be helping you with those needs as much as training you in theory and methods, or we are not giving you sufficient training to prepare you for a successful future.

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