GradStudentMentalHealth
Photo: Ananya Chandra

Penn has almost 11,000 graduate students, outnumbering the undergraduate population at 10,109, but these older students don't seem to be able to access the University's mental health resources as easily as undergraduates. 

Five of the 14 students who have died by suicide since February 2013 at Penn have been graduate students.

Graduate students at Penn are divided up among 12 schools, and then further subdivided within those schools according to their areas of study. Many of these students spend their entire days alone in labs, and few live on campus. Some are in year-long masters’ degree programs while others spend eight years at Penn in pursuit of a Ph.D.  

Since the graduate school network is more decentralized compared to the undergraduate system, students often spend a majority of their time within their own departments, said Graduate and Professional Student Assembly Chair for Student Life and fourth-year Nursing Ph.D. student Rosario Jaime-Lara. This becomes a problem when these students encounter issues with mental health.  

GAPSA President and third-year Design and School of Arts and Sciences professional master's student Miles Owen agreed.

“It’s really no secret that grad students have a high percentage of mental health problems,” he said. He noticed that in his home school, the graduate school of design, many students did not know that Counseling and Psychological Services even existed. University resources, Owen said, are underutilized by graduate students. 

Jaime-Lara also noted that many mental health student groups, which are designed to supplement University resources, seem geared towards undergraduate students. She cited the example of Penn Benjamins, a peer counseling service which she often recommends to the undergraduate residents in Ware College House, where she is a graduate associate. On its website, Penn Benjamins describes itself as a resource for the “Penn undergraduate community.” 

CAPS has recently hired four new staff members to expand its outreach by placing full-time clinicians in professional schools. The new clinicians spend between six and ten hours each week serving the graduate students in each of their respective schools: School of Dental Medicine, School of Veterinary Medicine, Perelman School of Medicine and Penn Law School.

Jamie-Lara also raised the student group Penn Reflect, which runs specialized programs for freshmen but none for first-year graduate students. 

Rachel Stonecipher, a fourth-year Annenberg Ph.D. student and vice president of LGBTQ interest group Lambda Grads, said she still remembers her difficult adjustment to graduate school. She described the loneliness she felt during her first semester, as Annenberg’s small class size barred her from integrating with the larger graduate student community.

“Within your department, there’s not always someone who gets you,” she said. “Annenberg is just so small that it doesn’t have a queer student group, and so it was very difficult to [find] … people who identified as gay or bisexual.” 

Graduate students said they also struggle with heavy academic pressures. A third-year Ph.D. student in the School of Arts and Sciences who wished to remain anonymous said the stress of graduate school led him to go to CAPS. He explained that graduate students can easily be dismissed from their programs if they do not maintain a minimum standard of academic performance. For him, this meant that he needed to receive at least a B-plus in his first several curved classes. 

This is even more stressful for international students, who could lose their visa to stay in the U.S. if they don't maintain a strong academic performance. 

Owen agreed, adding that graduate students, many of whom are international, also face challenges interacting with CAPS, which students have said isn't always sensitive to different cultural backgrounds. 

CAPS, while making an effort to hire diverse counselors, is not always able to place students with counselors of their same background because of scheduling.

“There’s no way you can have enough people at CAPS to cover all the cultures and all the correct ways of doing things all over the world, so it makes it very hard,” he said. 

Due to the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues, Jaime-Lara added, graduate students sometimes choose not to go to CAPS for fear of seeing undergraduate students they teach.

Stonecipher said she visited CAPS during her first semester and was told mid-way that she had reached her limit of appointments. Because she did not want to pay for an external therapist, she stopped receiving treatment for mental health. Stonecipher noted that she has heard of this happening to other students too.  

A spokesperson for the Vice Provost for University Life declined to make CAPS available for comment. 

Both Stonecipher and Jaime-Lara have organized stress-relieving events for graduate students. Last year, Jaime-Lara organized a coffee conversation series to talk about mental health, which she said reminded people that they are not alone in their challenges. 

“Even if it’s just one person that’s able to make it, and it makes a difference to that one person,” she said, “then I think it’s worth everything." 

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