A unique support group for grad students
Reprinted from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (3), pp. 26-27
I enrolled in the Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program (PDP) at York University in 1995, when I was a doctoral student, in the third year of a six-year program. I had been symptom-free for a long time, but relapsed into depression just after completing my comprehensive exams. This meant I wasn’t able to submit my work at the same rate as when I was well. I also had a teaching assistant job to maintain, even though I didn’t feel like myself.
My psychiatrist had heard of the Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program at York—which supports both undergraduate and graduate students who have mental health challenges—and suggested I contact them for academic accommodation.
The program coordinator, Dr. Enid Weiner,* advocated for me with my doctoral program. She informed me about my rights to support and counselled me on how best to approach people, when to disclose and how much to disclose.
Grad school—more at stake with disclosure
Disclosure is a trickier issue for grad students than for undergrads. For undergrads, you’re often one among hundreds of students. The PDP routinely submits formal letters to professors identifying undergrads who have a documented episodic disability. For grad students, it’s different. The program is much smaller and students know their classmates more intimately—and their peers and professors may very well end up being their future colleagues. So, most graduate students prefer not to have any formal, written documentation.
Enid tried to start a support group for graduate students. I eagerly attended every session, but we never had more than one or two people come. (Five to six people is considered a workable minimum; otherwise there’s pressure on people to talk who may not wish to.) Though the PDP had successful groups for undergrads, fear of stigma and possible negative impacts—for example, fear that getting grants or tenure-track jobs would be negatively affected—kept grad students from joining the group.
Cultivating critical mass
In 2000 I was hired as an advisor in the Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program. In my new role, I was determined to start another support group for graduate students. However, it took until the 2007 academic year to finally get the group successfully up and running.
What proved successful was creating a paid mentorship program. Grad students registered with our program mentor newcomer grad students in the PDP, even if they aren’t in the same academic program. As part of their work contract, three of these graduate student mentors form the basis of the support group. Their numbers and regular attendance make it easier for other students to attend.
Regular listserv notices to all grad students in the PDP let them know what topics are to be covered in the group that week. As a result, we get a different combination of students coming each time. About 10 graduate students have been attending every two weeks. This is roughly half of the graduate students enrolled with the Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program. As you can imagine, I’m thrilled!
What the group offers
A major benefit of the support group is that it helps normalize the experience of the students. By talking with other grad students, they get to see that they’re not the only one facing these issues. The support group has an inclusive and open atmosphere; I facilitate, but students e-mail me suggestions about running the group better.
During meetings we figure out the needs of graduate students with long-term mental health issues, then we problem solve. We explore strategies for issues such as how to talk to people about our challenges, who to talk to about them, and when and why to share them with professors (e.g., for accommodations).
We’ve had group discussions on prearranged topics such as financial aid, housing, community resources, networking, and managing school and one’s health. We’ve also had guest speakers on topics such as learning skills (e.g., procrastination and essay completion), human rights, technology helpful for graduate studies,1 and library services for graduate students with disabilities. In the future, we’ll invite a professor who is a mental health consumer/survivor.
Some common concerns
All graduate students tend to feel isolated. It’s part of the graduate experience: they research on their own, they write on their own—and for many years.
When PDP students request accommodation, however, they often find that, their isolation increases. The professors—supervising members of a thesis or dissertation2 committee, or coursework professors—often stop contacting them. Mostly the professors are decent and want to help, but there seems to be a belief that by withdrawing contact, the student won’t feel pushed as hard and will feel less pressure. But this withdrawal reduces the student’s support even further, and the student ends up feeling left behind.
In the group, we’ve discussed how to set up ways of maintaining contact—for example, requesting to meet monthly with professors, supervisors and graduate program directors, even if you have no work to show them.
We’ve had many discussions in the group about how to support ourselves financially. Students who may have held multiple jobs as undergraduates rethink taking on paid work during their graduate degrees, because the academic demands are so great. A major dilemma for students in the PDP is keeping focused on their degree requirements while working as research or teaching assistants. These are well-paid, unionized jobs, which help with the high grad-school tuition rates. The overwhelming majority of grad students have these jobs, and to let one go is to stand out. But the alternative income from disability benefits is very low. This makes poverty for graduate students with long-term mental health issues a serious problem.
The students all confirm the benefits of further support in time management, writing and organizational skills. Rather than seeing these needs as remedial—that is, “Oh, that’s only for undergrads who don’t know how to write”—the group is a place to find out how to hone the skills they already have.
Personally, I would never have completed a draft of my doctoral dissertation if my psychiatrist and I hadn’t spent months working on strategies for keeping going. For example, there’s the timer trick where you sit and write for 15 minutes, then reward yourself with something fun when the timer goes off. If you’re having a lot of negative thoughts about your work, this can really help.
In my case, my psychiatrist happened to be a great resource for me in the whole learning skills area. But we have learning skills specialists here that grad students don’t know they can access. We bring the specialists to the group. And in the group, we explore our own creative solutions.
The group has come full circle for me. It teaches me how to support graduate students one-on-one, as well as how to advocate with professors, graduate program directors and the Faculty of Graduate Studies. It also confirms the need for specialized support that I felt 12 years ago—a need that is still present today. If this group had existed in 1995, the impact for me would have been enormous. I would have been connected to the wealth of services I now bring to the PDP support group.
Student feedback shows how important this group is to them. For me, the group is a success if even one grad student no longer feels alone.
*see pg. 24
About the author
Jennifer has been an advisor in the Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program at York University (Toronto, Ontario) for nine years and is a consumer/survivor. Jennifer advises individual students, runs groups and facilitates workshops for staff and faculty.