With one counselor for 4,000 grad students, something doesn’t add up

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Grad students live with one foot in the harsh reality of the working world, and the other in the anxieties and financial instability of student life.

As students, grad students don’t receive the same benefits that an employer would owe its employees. But as employees, their needs aren’t catered to like your average undergrad. Grad students fall in between — and somehow, they often lose out on both worlds.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the mental health resources available to grad students.

Grad students face a unique set of circumstances — high stress and frequent loneliness — that make them particularly vulnerable to severe mental illness.

They spend a lot of time working alone and carry heavy workloads that combine their own research with teaching and all its responsibilities, leaving little time for socializing. 

In the long-term, the function and role of grad students needs to be reevaluated to resolve its systemic issues.

In the short-term, better support is needed. Currently, there is only one grad counselor, who is also in the midst of completing his own post-graduate work.

Financially strapped as the University is, calls for more funding and more resources often fall on deaf ears. With that in mind, here are things we could do within existing resources to alleviate grad students’ stress:

Increasing students’ access to different forms of counseling is beneficial. The Online Psychology Network that opened to undergraduate students this year is an example of ways to work creatively within our existing resources to offer better mental health services.

The Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) currently offers a peer-advising service and organizes social activities. However, with their current restructuring, some of these activities have fallen by the wayside.

The onus is on the SGPS to make an effort to address the concerns of their members as best they can. With that in mind, it’s always a good idea to start from a foundation of indisputable knowledge.

The SGPS and Student Wellness Services (SWS, formerly HCDS) can work together to gather data to create a conclusive picture of the prevalence and nature of issues among grad students. For instance, UBC’s Grad Student Society recently launched a website where grad students can confidentially submit their stories about discrimination or harassment. Something similar, but focused on mental health at Queen’s, would give SWS and the SGPS a better idea of the challenges they’re facing.

Another potential option for data gathering is the upcoming 2016 NCHA Student Health and Wellness Survey, which will be conducted this February. Based on the 2013 data published by Queen’s, the survey’s questions seem to be more undergraduate-focused. However, it could be an opportunity for better understanding graduate difficulties.

We make these suggestions with supporting grad students in mind, so counselors can focus on serious mental health concerns.

At the end of the day, the SGPS is made up of students who may be dealing with the same problems they’re trying to fix for their peers. While the SGPS has a role to advocate and investigate, they can only do so much before the next step is to direct someone to the proper professional resources. But that only works if those resources exist.

We can talk about peer societies and student-run resources until we’re blue in the face, but it doesn’t change the bottom line: there needs to be more than one counselor for 4,000 grad students. Unavoidably, that means allocating more funding will be necessary.

Grad students need counselors who understand their circumstances. Otherwise, counselling has about the same effectiveness of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

But the only counselor designated specifically for grad students is so overworked that soon we're going to need a counselor for the counselor.

— Journal Editorial Board

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