Mental Health and Self-Care for Graduate Students

By: Iona Lister

As teaching assistants, many of us grad students learn to watch for signs that our students might be struggling, and the various support systems we can refer them to, yet we rarely discuss how to look for signs of these issues amongst our peers. Graduate students are particularly susceptible to burnout (especially in their second year and beyond), which is characterized by physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. As Thomas Frank describes it, “Everything makes you tired. You don’t care about anything. Everything sucks.”

Image care of

Perhaps one of the reasons we tend not to talk enough about mental health is the stigma that still surrounds it. Stigma is a huge problem when it comes to discussions of mental health, and can create a barrier from dealing with our difficulties in a healthy way (or at all). As Dawn Schell from Counselling Services pointed out in our Professional Development (Pro D) session on mental illness this term, when students are asked to name words associated with “mental health,” the words (depression, breakdown, etc.) and images (e.g. people holding their heads) that come to mind are often implicitly negative. The term “mental health,” however, is not a judgment of positive or negative quality; rather, we all have mental health.

What many people are thinking of when they think of mental health is mental illness, or what Dawn calls “a range of behaviours, thoughts, and emotions that can result in some level of distress of impairment, and is often associated with a formal diagnosis.” However, to assume a binary where people are either mentally healthy or mentally ill isn’t accurate either. Instead, it can be more helpful to think about mental health in terms of a “health continuum” or spectrum on which we all slide either way from time to time, and can even dip down to the “severe” range without having (or needing) a diagnosis. It’s also important to remember that we can be diagnosed with a mental illness and still flourish—and there are many resources available on-campus to help with that.

Image care of the University of Calgary’s page on Mental Health

During the Pro D session, we came up with tips and things to think about to help us function more optimally under the pressures of grad school:

  • Remember to give yourself time for a little relaxation and remind one another to do the same.
  • Reinforce each other for taking breaks: taking a break can sometimes feel like being lazy or guilty for not working as hard as we think we should (or as hard as we think everyone else is working).
  • We need to be careful not to normalize or encourage burnout. For example, instead of saying “it’s natural,” we can say “you’re not alone.”
  • Preventative measures: prioritize social contact; disconnect from technology; move your body frequently; don’t sit for more than an hour; make laughter and play a priority; reduce intake of alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine; and get restful sleep (see tips on sleep hygiene)
  • Practice mindfulness. There is drop-in meditation on Tuesdays and Fridays, 3:30-4:15pm
  • We feel stressed when the demands on us overwhelm our coping strategies. It can help to ask ourselves (or each other): Can we decrease our demands (quit something?), add new coping strategies or augment our existing ones?

Dawn suggested teaming up with a mental health buddy—someone you feel comfortable asking to watching out for signs you’re struggling and to support you accordingly. To do this, it’s worth taking some time to think of (or brainstorm together) warning signs that you or your buddy are struggling and suggestions or strategies that are helpful for those situations. People struggling often don’t notice or don’t want to do the things that would most benefit them in the moment (sleep, exercise). If we work together in pairs, we can create a supportive academic culture and remember how necessary it is to check in with ourselves and each other.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Dawn Schell for speaking with us and facilitating our Pro D workshop.

Further resources:

UVic Counselling Services:

University Centre Room B270

Phone: 250-721-8341

Hours of operation: Monday – Friday, 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

*Note: appointments book up quickly, but there are same-day drop in appointments available if you check in with the front desk at 12pm. You can also call or stop by in-person to see if there have been cancellations (it happens!).

Vancouver Island Crisis Line: 1-888-494-3888

Anxiety BC website

Graduate student mental health:

College Info Geek on student burnout

UC Berkeley’s Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report

The ACHA-National College Health Assessment II

Readings on the benefits of mindfulness in education:

Hyland, Terry. “The Practice of Mindfulness.” Mindfulness and Learning: Celebrating the Affective Dimension of Education. Lifelong Learning Book Series. Dordrecht, 2011. Springer Link. Accessed 12 Feb. 2017.

“Mindfulness in the Classroom.” Center for Teaching. Vanderbilt University. Accessed 15 Feb. 2017.

Ramsburg, Jared T., and Robert J. Youmans. “Meditation in the Higher-Education Classroom: Meditation Training Improves Student Knowledge Retention during Lectures.” Mindfulness, vol. 5, no. 4, 2014, pp. 431-441 doi:10.1007/s12671-013-0199-5. Accessed 5 Mar. 2017.

Saks, Alan M., and Jamie A. Gruman. “Mindfulness and the Transfer of Training.” Industrial and Organizational Psychology, vol. 8, no. 4, 2015, pp. 689. doi:10.1017/iop.2015.101. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Iona Lister is a first-year MA student in English and is working on a Master’s Essay on fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman fabliaux. This term, she has worked as a TA for Rebecca Gagan’s ENGL 146 class (The Literature of Our Era), as well as Dr. Michael Reed’s MEDI 200 (Myths and Legends of the Middle Ages). Her research interests are especially based in both contemporary international/transnational literature and medieval literature, and include multilingualism, medieval revival, cultural expectations of gender, migration, and fantastical representations of water in medieval literature.

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