Opinion guest column

Graduate student mental health is in crisis

We need immediate action to improve access to mental health care and address root causes

The content and discussion in this petition will necessarily engage with suicide. While it has been drafted with support from mental health professionals, engaging with it may be emotionally challenging.

There is a growing mental health crisis among graduate students, both at MIT and around the country. Thirty-nine percent of graduate students suffer from depression and 41 percent suffer from anxiety. A study on the mental health of economics PhD students at top tier research schools, including MIT and Harvard, reported that one in ten had contemplated suicide in the past two weeks. This alarming incidence of mental health issues among graduate students nationwide is equally — if not more — prevalent in the MIT community. In March 2019, the MIT administration sent a survey to current graduate students to assess their experiences at MIT. Of the nearly 2,100 graduate students who responded, nine in ten reported feeling overwhelmed, two in three felt isolated, and one in three felt so depressed it was difficult to function.

The cloud of mental health issues hangs heavy over the entire MIT community. Far too often, we hear of a community member who has tragically died by suicide. Each suicide reminds us that depression and isolation are not unusual at MIT and have become a pervasive norm. We must support one another.

Graduate students serve an indispensable role in MIT’s community. We teach and mentor undergraduates, generate new knowledge through our research, secure funding through grant writing, produce journal articles, and foster community. However, despite our passion and dedication, our work at MIT can exact a heavy toll on our physical and mental well-being. This is not how it has to be. It is within MIT’s means to create a healthier academic environment for us to grow as scholars and people. In order to build a better MIT, we need to increase access to mental health care and address the systemic causes of the mental health crisis, including dysfunctional advisor-advisee relations. As members of the MIT community, as scholars who provide immense value to the Institute, and as human beings, we deserve to be treated with dignity.

All of this considered, a group of graduate students at MIT have come together to create Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT, a student advocacy group looking to improve the graduate student experience. In conversation with various student groups, we have drafted the following recommendations: to increase coverage of our existing insurance and start to address the root causes of mental health issues, particularly around advisor-advisee relations.

Improved mental health coverage and access

We need an increase in the number of covered therapy sessions for outside referrals from 12 to 26 annually, a decrease in the current copay from $25 to $10 per session, a clear and streamlined process for obtaining an outside referral for mental health support, and improved cultural competency and sensitivity training for counselors.

The current services offered by the MIT Student Extended Insurance Plan fail to meet the needs of the graduate student population. When depression, anxiety, and trauma threaten our well-being, we must be able to readily access high-quality care. When that care is not accessible, we continue to suffer needlessly and are unable to perform the great work of discovery, understanding, and innovation that compelled us to come to MIT.

The current coverage for regular therapy sessions is inadequate compared to what should be expected for a minimum level of treatment. Currently MIT only covers 12 sessions for outside referrals. Every additional session outside of the 12 that are covered costs $25 for patients, adding at least $1,000 per year in out-of-pocket costs for a person who receives weekly mental health care. This is not affordable for many graduate students and must be brought into line with our budget and rising cost of living to increase accessibility. The recent quality of life survey found that three out of four grad students report cost of living as a source of stress and half report their health as a source of stress. We believe that making treatment affordable can begin to address the pervasive mental health crisis. We can improve this by increasing the number of covered sessions from 12 to 26 annually and decreasing the copay on the remaining sessions from $25 to $10 per session. We must be able to afford treatment for the psychological costs of contributing to MIT.

Due to a shortage of adequate support, many graduate students seeking mental health care are lost in the current referral process and never receive the care they need. The current mental healthcare system at MIT relies heavily on outside referrals for patients. The social stigma and the difficulty of grappling with mental health issues already impose major barriers to accessing care. Students often receive a referral from the mental health office only to fall through the cracks and never receive the care that they need. In order to ensure ready access to care, this process must be streamlined. Referrals could be better facilitated by dedicated, full-time staff, instead of delegating to currently over-worked counselors and students.

Additionally, students of color and international students often report that MIT counselors are ill-equipped to provide treatment to students from marginalized backgrounds. There is a desperate need to improve the services provided to these members of our community. MIT must expand the current cultural competency and sensitivity training program for counselors and create a transparent mechanism to implement ongoing feedback from existing student groups representing students of color and international students. A similar program must also be made available as a recommended training for all student advisors.

Accountability in advisor-advisee relations

We need structural improvements for advisor-advisee relations, including required training for all faculty on mentorship, mental health, cultural competency, and sensitivity; student-run advisor evaluations; accountability mechanisms for abusive advisors; clear protection from retaliation for students who report abuse and exploitation; and transitional funding for students switching between advisors.

Although many factors contribute to the growing graduate mental health crisis, one major root cause stands out. Unsupportive and dysfunctional advisor-advisee relationships are cited as one of the strongest predictors for poor mental health outcomes. These relationships are at the heart of graduate education and, when healthy, can be fruitful for everyone involved. However, instead of elevating students’ scholarship, the recent quality of life survey found that for two out of five graduate students, their relationship with their advisor is an obstacle to their academic success.

Despite the importance of advisor-advisee relationships in the academic community, MIT does not require mentorship training for advisors. For example, advisors are given no guidance on how to identify and address issues within their group or how to best support the mental health of their students. Similarly, academic advisors often lack sufficient training to address systemic issues in their lab and department that affect students of color and international students. The resulting barriers and toxic environment lead to significantly worse mental health outcomes for students of color and international students. Poor advising is cited as the most common reason for a student to drop out of grad school. When a student leaves MIT without a degree, no one benefits. Both MIT and the student waste substantial financial and time resources. Continuing to allow students to fall through the cracks is financially and ethically irresponsible.

The vast imbalance of power in advisor-advisee relationships allows for abusive and toxic situations. Graduate students often don’t report advisors’ unreasonable expectations and inappropriate behavior for fear of retaliation. Far too often, we are overworked, sexually harassed, discriminated against, or otherwise disrespected and mistreated by our advisors without recourse. We must be able to report toxic situations safely to neutral third-party review committees that include faculty and student representation. Our departments must stop providing cover for abusive advisors. We can start to identify problematic advisors through a student-run, Right to Information-style database of advisor reviews, exit interviews for all students, objective metrics on graduation rate and time to graduation, and demographic breakdowns that could indicate bias against women or people of color. There must be consequences for abusive advisors, including restrictions on taking new students and getting raises. Finally, to allow for grad students to exit from toxic situations, we must provide guaranteed transitional funding between advisors so that leaving an abusive advising relationship doesn’t have to mean leaving grad school.

We deserve to be respected by our mentors.


This letter is cosponsored by Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT, Black Graduate Student Association, LBGT Grad, Active Minds, Chemistry REFS, Physics REFS, BCS REFS, Chemistry Alliance for Diversity and Inclusion, BioLGBTQ+, Women in Chemical Engineering, DUSP Student Council, DUSP Healthy Masculinities, DUSP Students of Color Committee, DUSP LatinX, DUSP Queers in the Built Environment, design@DUSP, DUSP Climate, Biology Diversity Council, and the Edgerton House Association.

Jeff Rosenberg is a PhD student in the chemistry department.
Sarah Cowles is a PhD student in the chemical engineering department.
Nick Selby is a PhD student in the EECS department. 
They are all members of Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT, a mental health advocacy group.