Sara did not expect much to come from her visit to the university’s counseling center, but she was concerned enough about the dark thoughts she’d been having that she decided to go anyway.

As she sat in the waiting room after turning in the patient questionnaire, she thought: “It’s probably not a big deal. I’m probably overreacting.”

But she wasn’t. After reviewing her screening survey, staff at the counseling center didn’t want her to leave without speaking to a therapist.

Like Sara – an actual student who agreed to let us share her story – half of all graduate students experience psychological distress. Four in 10 graduate students reported that mental or emotional health affected their academic performance in the previous four weeks. When asked about their mental health in the past year, 7 percent of graduate and professional students reported seriously considering suicide compared to 4 percent of adults in the general population.

As researchers who study mental health and mentor graduate students, we believe critical changes need to be made at universities to better support students like Sara. Some of these changes can be made by individual graduate students and faculty, while others require larger institutional changes by graduate programs, departments and the universities as a whole.

1. Fight the culture of silence
We believe the culture of silence surrounding mental health in academia needs to be changed into a “culture of access” around mental health. This involves starting with the assumption that graduate students with mental health concerns are expected and welcomed in academia, not aberrant cases that need to be dealt with.

It also pays to seek out mental health first aid training, which has been shown to improve knowledge, attitudes and behavior regarding mental health.

2. Expect reluctance
Even as society struggles to normalize conversations about mental health, students may still find it difficult to reach out for help. As was the case for Sara, students may feel they aren’t in bad enough shape to need help. They may also worry about being judged by their community, may want to handle things on their own or may not have the time or money for services.

– Meghan Duffy, Carly Thanhouser, Daniel Eisenberg

Read more: What Colleges Must Do To Promote Mental Health For Graduate Students

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