Opinion guest column

Challenges of graduate student medical leave

Improved support is needed

I attended MIT as an undergraduate and was excited to continue as a graduate student. Five months into my graduate program, I took a voluntary medical leave to care for chronic back pain and depression. I was already familiar with some support resources available at MIT, Mental Health and Counseling and Student Support Services (S3), since I had used them as an undergraduate. I did not realize that the equivalent of S3 for graduate students is woefully inadequate.

S3 acts as the hub for MIT’s support resources for undergraduates dealing with personal or academic concerns. It also manages undergraduate medical leaves. I visited the office during walk-in hours several times as an undergraduate and was always pleased with my experience. The S3 office does a remarkable job serving the undergraduate population. 75% of MIT undergraduates will visit Student Support Services by the time they graduate, and 86% would recommend the office to a friend.

In contrast, only 14% of graduate students have used the GradSupport team in the Office of Graduate Education (OGE) and 18% are unaware that this office exists. Graduate students make up 60% of the MIT student population, but only three deans are dedicated to graduate student advising and support, compared to seven deans at S3. This disparity is compounded by the heavy workload facing graduate students. With a demanding course load and the additional responsibilities of graduate research, my work now is at least as time-consuming as my undergraduate classes were, when incredible support was readily available.

As a result of an under-resourced GradSupport team in the OGE, I had trouble getting in touch with the deans while arranging my leave and return. Often, my emails went unreturned and my phone calls unanswered. When I was approved to return from medical leave, I was not made aware of this decision until three weeks after it had been made. Given the time-sensitive nature of taking leave, my stress was compounded as I waited in uncertainty on both ends of my leave.

MIT is fortunate to have therapists on staff, but once my leave began, I could no longer visit MIT Medical and had to work with the outside healthcare system. Low availability of mental healthcare is a problem nationwide. One study in Psychiatric Services found that the average wait time for an initial psychiatric appointment is 25 days. When researchers called listed psychiatrists, only four-in-ten initial calls were answered, while 16% of listed phone numbers were incorrect and one-third of unanswered calls were returned. Furthermore, another study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that only 55% of psychiatrists accept private insurance. My experience was consistent with these findings. I called many psychiatrists and therapists with few returned phone calls. With few options, I ultimately saw a therapist who did not accept insurance of any kind.

Medical leave is not easy. I was going to physical therapy twice a week, mental health therapy every other week, and seeing a psychiatrist monthly. I also worked part-time in order to pay my housing, transportation, and healthcare costs. I ultimately obtained the care I needed to improve my health and returned to MIT. I received my master’s degree last spring but feel that this positive outcome was a result not of MIT’s support services, but of my own fortunate circumstances. My advisor was incredibly patient and understanding throughout the process. I grew up near Boston and could lean on my family for support. I am a U.S. citizen and could therefore get a job while on leave. These factors allowed me to use my medical leave as a chance to focus on my health, despite the stresses that I faced. I have spoken to enough graduate students to know that many struggle with advisor conflicts, financial circumstances, and isolation that would prevent them from seeking help in the first place. In fact, only 40% of graduate students are comfortable approaching their advisor about non-academic issues. Having been an undergraduate here, I know that MIT is capable of supporting its graduate students. It can and must do better.

Brian Gilligan SB ’17 SM ’19 is a member of Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT. Please reach out to grads4healthymit@gmail.com to follow up on the piece or Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT’s campaign.