Mental Health

I lost a year of my life (and a year of progress on my thesis project) to depression and anxiety before I got the professional aid I needed.  Penn’s mental health care infrastructure is built for undergraduate students, so I spent a lot of counseling time explaining the structure of my program and how graduate school works.  When I asked about the options for taking a leave of absence CAPS didn’t know the answer for graduate programs.  When I looked online at our student handbook about taking a leave of absence there was only a cryptic paragraph, and even that was difficult to find.  The process seemed opaque and embarrassing, so without anyone to help me navigate it I didn’t take any leave.  I was probably always going to be susceptible to brain problems, but I blame my graduate school experience for how bad it got.  I linked my self-worth to my project.  Any time I didn’t spend in lab was time I could have been in lab — time that a good graduate student would have spent in lab.  I felt guilty all the time.  Our studies aren’t supposed to be work, they’re supposed to be our lives.  That mentality made me sick.  The prevalence of mental illness among graduate students suggests that it makes others sick too.  A union will be the first step towards giving us control over our graduate employment, control that we can use to make our environment less toxic, more nurturing, and ultimately an experience that educates us while doing no harm.

— Graduate Student in Biomedical Graduate Studies



When I was a second year, my labmate committed suicide. We were close friends, and while she was very open with me about her battle with depression, I was completely blindsided and devastated by the loss. I am still very upset with how Penn handled this tragedy- I had to learn from an email sent from my PI that she passed away and several hours later I learned from an article in the DP that her death was a suicide. The fact that we were informed in this impersonal way is completely unacceptable. The school never contacted us about the resources available to help us manage our grief and never informed the larger community that she had passed away. I felt alone in my grief and could not bring myself to return to lab where everything reminded me of her. Luckily my PI was very understanding and allowed me to take some time off, although he was not required to allow us to do so. I sought help from CAPS and had a lot of difficulty securing an appointment because they were overbooked. After one session, I was told that I would have to seek an outside counselor because they were too full. Several months later, I returned to CAPS and again met the same problem after a few sessions. I decided to find an outside counselor but had to contact 5 different therapists before finding one who had an opening. This therapist has been very helpful but charges $10 per week, which has been a significant financial burden. Some of my friends have encountered the same problems accessing mental health care and pay up to $30 per session for an outside counselor. I believe these barriers prevent many people from accessing vital mental health resources and alienate people who need those services the most. Our union would help us achieve accessible mental health care which is vital to our community and ensuring student health.

— Graduate Student in Biomedical Graduate Studies


When I needed immediate mental health care, CAPS told me they didn’t have any therapists available for weeks or months.  The only option they provided me was to see a therapist-in-training, which meant having all my sessions videotaped to be played back later for my therapist’s advisor.  I decided that was acceptable to me, but I shouldn’t have had to make that choice.

—Graduate Student in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences


It’s difficult to be a graduate student with a mental disability — your disability gets constantly read as a sign of your own failure: to be sufficiently social, to be sufficiently productive, to be sufficiently well-kempt and on-time and chipper and professional, to live outside the temporality of trauma or panic. Penn has no adequate way to address the neurodiverse needs of graduate students with mental disabilities while treating us like competent and maybe even brilliant human beings who also happen to live with a disability. I entered graduate school as a trauma survivor who’s always struggled with depression and self-confident posturing; and many social situations, due to my trauma and its triggers, cause profound panic attacks. As such, some of the basic gestures of being a graduate student in a highly professionalized and often cutthroat culture are triggers for my disability. I expected that, going in. What I did not expect was that Penn’s administrative structure and policies weren’t designed to help people like me. Instead, they’ve been deliberately arranged to make students with mental disabilities even more precarious — and to normalize the stigmatizing, silencing and attempting to get rid of neurodiverse individuals. This is by design.

From the time I arrived here, I’ve seen fellow grads stigmatized and bullied inside and outside of classrooms, cut off from their department, and thrown into vicious cycles of anxiety and depression by a culture that prides itself on “rooting out” grads with mental disabilities and punishing them. The usual response is that we need to take a leave or take time to “work on” our mental health — which mean that grads struggling with grief, with major depressive disorder, with anxiety disorder, trauma, bipolar disorder and beyond are often made economically precarious and are CUT OFF from healthcare, counseling and sources of institutional support, ostensibly in the name of healing. We’re also, of course, cut off from our sense of vocation — from job pride, solidarity with fellow graduate students and peers, teaching, and from our research. Without any standard grievance procedure, grads on leave for mental health reasons (whether we chose it or not) often have no clear way of knowing how to come back — and face the burden not only of finding temporary jobs and sources of health insurance, but, often, having to piece together entirely new mental health support systems when our extant (and already meager) support is cut off. Worse yet, I’ve found that, while on leave, I’ve been expected not only to keep up with my graduate school duties, but to literally perform being a graduate student without any of the financial or structural support; and to prove my readiness to return via invasive questioning about my mental health “progress” — when the administration knows full well I’ve been stripped of my insurance, sent into a deep depression by being removed from my teaching and my graduate work, and made unable even to afford counseling!

This isn’t just me. Grads with mental disabilities are routinely bullied, stigmatized and silenced at Penn. I’ve seen it in worried glances at parties and whispers that someone is “having mental health issues”; and I’ve seen it in classrooms, when professors wittingly and unwittingly paralyze students already struggling to feel we deserve a place here. This culture of fear and stigma is created by our administrative policies towards mental health and mental disability that say it’s OK to make us precarious. We’re told we don’t deserve to be here; that our disability — which should be a protected category — is a punishable offense: as if we hadn’t already fought our way here through a society that’s been telling us this for years! GET UP gives me the hope that we can forge not only a union for graduate student workers across our schools, but a deeper awareness of the value of neurodiversity on our campus — so that we can nurture justice-seeking systems and a true ethics of care, to fight mental disability stigma and silencing and the making precarious of graduate students with mental health concerns. I want a union because I want the administration to better support and value all Penn community members — including students with mental disabilities.

— Graduate Student in the School of Arts and Sciences


The inadequate policies to address mental health issues among graduate student workers can have devastating consequences. Penn’s procedures surrounding mental health remain tailored primarily to undergraduates, ignoring the demands and anxieties specific to graduate life. Resources for those who seek help are riddled with logistical failures like long waiting periods and unclear information surrounding leaves of absence. The mental health system at Penn is poorly tailored for the needs of graduate student workers who must navigate jobs that are high-risk and high-stress even on the best days. This not only affects our well being; it affects our ability to work.

Penn’s recent mental health initiatives ask ‘How can we fix the student who cannot handle their stressful environment?’ but not ‘How do we fix the stressful environment that hurts our students?’ The lack of clear work/life boundaries, uncertain job prospects, and financial burdens strain our mental, emotional, and physical resources. Our working conditions make us susceptible to mental health problems, and the mental health care system at Penn is poorly tailored for the needs of graduate students. A union could help by improving our working conditions, reducing uncertainty, making on-campus resources more sensitive to the needs of graduate students, and ensuring that students who feel stigmatized have the support they need.

Graduate students are at high risk for mental illness, most commonly stress, depression, and anxiety. A 2015 study at the University of California-Berkeley found that 47% of their PhD candidates met the criteria for depression. However, despite widespread problems, many graduate students have reported a culture of stigma and shame surrounding mental health. Some have avoided treatment entirely in the fear that it will put their professional lives at risk, or have stifled genuine distress in an attempt to maintain an impossible standard of labor.

The current system at CAPS is oriented toward the needs of undergraduates, which are distinct from those of graduate student workers. CAPS counselors are unfamiliar with the structure of graduate programs and how the stress of teaching and researching—all while pursuing (and finding funding for) our own academic work—differs from the stressors of undergraduate life. The short-term counseling CAPS offers fits well within the undergraduate semester schedule, but graduate student workers often labor throughout breaks. While Penn has begun to address some of these issues for to students in professional schools, the administration continues to ignore the specific needs of PhD and masters graduate student workers.

When graduate students take medical leaves of absence, Penn deprives them of subsidized health insurance and their stipends, effectively cutting them off of the resources they need to pursue treatment. Some graduate student workers have been forced to take these leaves of absence for psychological treatment, or have agreed to take leaves of absence before being fully informed that they will have to bear the cost of healthcare alone. While graduate students in BGS, for example, who take leave for psychological reasons are told to “make appropriate financial arrangements to continue any necessary treatment…and to arrange for an appropriate support system,” there are few resources in place to help them do so.

A working environment that already fails to meet graduate students’ needs exacerbates the challenges facing those who struggle with mental health, including, but not limited to, inadequate grievance procedures, inconsistent funding and health insurance (with even less for dental and vision coverage), and poor policies surrounding grads with families and international student workers. The imperative to have a voice in the conditions of our labor is inextricable from our efforts to ameliorate the mental, physical, and emotional distress tied to our work environments.

As a union of graduate student workers, GET-UP can advocate for more mental health resources dedicated to graduate students and clearer policies for students who need to take a leave of absence for mental health reasons. GET-UP can also work to ensure that students who take leaves for mental health can get the treatment they need in order to return to Penn to continue their studies.

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