1 grad counselor, 4,000 students

Graduate students face increased mental health risk and limited resources

Grad students face increased stresses while dealing with the demands of grad school.

Grad students experiencing mental illness can expect to wait for a session with their school-specific counselor.

While graduate students are free to see any Student Wellness counselor, Ashley Vanstone is the only dedicated counselor for over 4,000 graduate students. As a dedicated counselor, he specializes in the unique challenges facing grad students. 

Grad students are more susceptible to mental illness, according to Vanstone, and are often faced with significant barriers to treatment as university resources are stretched thin. 

Since the release of the Principal’s Commission of Mental Health in 2011 — which followed two student suicides in 2010 — the University has focused increasingly on mental health. The university has since added faculty-specific counselors and brought the number of outreach counselors from three to eight. 

Still, grad school leaves students with predispositions to mental illness particularly vulnerable. Students say they routinely feel isolated under demanding schedules and new responsibilities, and treatment is constrained by a limited provincial mental health care system and burdened university counselors.

Both Student Wellness Services (SWS) and Vanstone have been affected by the expanded demand for mental health resource. 

“Sheer volume is an issue and it’s something SWS has had to grapple with,” Vanstone said. “It’s an issue we must address in an environment of constrained resources.” 

Grad students face mental illness at an increased rate than other students, according to Vanstone. 

“When they [grad students] do access services, experience from colleagues in other universities indicates they tend to use services at higher rates and higher intensities,” he said.

“On the ground, the explanation is fairly simple. By the time they get to grad school, difficulties become more pronounced.”

He also says the length of studies may be a factor in student mental illness.

“The duration of graduate study is considerable. With everyday or academic stresses, maybe they could be handled quite well for semester, but going on for three years without a person having access or knowing about the resources they need … then even the best of us could develop a serious mental health problem.”

Students experiencing difficulties are still left to feel the limits of university resources, which Vanstone said can include delayed treatment.

“[The limits] could take the form of wait times that SWS has tried to address,” Vanstone said. 

He added that the initial model of four sessions as a standard length of counseling has changed, so there’s no longer any standardized cap. Vanstone didn’t comment on the effects removing the cap has had, however. 

Post-doctorate researcher Dr. Sharday Mosurinjohn, who studies contemporary religious movements, says graduate studies structurally lends itself to difficulties. 

“There’s already a lot of insight among graduate students’ work that contribute to themes of isolation, alienation, anxiety, depression, circumstantial or otherwise. And [an] adaptive amount of cynicism as well that these are structural conditions for that line of work,” she said. Some students, she added, may consider these difficulties a given.

She went on to say that mental health issues appears to vary by faculty, and seem to become more prevalent in individualized research. 

While she’s never used counseling services, her partner occasionally works for SWS and she has profiled Ashley Vanstone for the School of Graduate Studies. 

“[It’s one of the] hazards of the job. Some people have labs and tight-knit, supportive work situations. But for a lot of humanities scholars and maybe also social sciences scholars, the labor is a lot less collaborative than the models present in the sciences, health sciences, STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] in general.”

Once graduate students overcome the challenges of graduate school, she says they then face limited job prospects, which creates more pressure for students.

“There is no end point.  There is no point where your work is done. That certainly sustains feelings of anxiety and vulnerability,” she said.

“There are assumptions… that you can just pick up and go. You’re supposed to go to a different program for this degree and than another one in this degree and if you are so lucky as to find some kind of employment after that, you pick up again and you go. That’s hard for a lot of us. A lot of us have to choose letting our careers suffer or letting our families suffer.” Scott Lougheed, an environmental science PhD, said work environments vary among graduate students. 

“It depends on your department, your supervisor, and your relationship with your supervisor and your colleagues. Supervisors are variously sympathetic to your needs and variously personable,” he said. “I’ve been grateful for my own supervisor because in times of stress I’ve been able to tell her, ‘things are crazy.’”

But he said this is no replacement for mental health services.

“This is far from counseling and is not as effective to in dealing with depression and anxiety, but it can reduce the onset of those things.”

Some stressers are consistent, however.

“Due dates. A collision of deadlines — you’ve got to mark 50 essays, you’ve got to turn a draft around of a chapter of your thesis to your supervisor and you have to do your scholarship applications all at the same time,” he said.  

“You can’t do everything. Those are times where I feel ineffective. It’s a feeling of incompetence.” 

The demands of grad school can leave students predisposed to mental illness vulnerable, and isolation often takes a central role.

A 2013 National College Health Assessment (NCHA) survey of Queen’s students found that grad students reported increased difficulties feeling as if they were part of the Queen’s community compared to their undergraduate counterparts. In the survey, a lower percentage of grad students reported that they had more than one close friend and that they didn’t feel socially isolated.

The Journal spoke with Chris Fruetel, MA ’15, and president of the Civil Engineering Graduate Society, about the environment for graduate students. Fruetel said he believes the majority of grad students “have no idea” about the resources available.

“A lot of people just assume they’re on their own. From the undergrad to your Masters, you’re on your own a lot more, [and] even more so when you’re on your PhD,” Fruetel said. “Pretty soon a Master’s degree becomes a task instead of an opportunity.”

He said his relationships are more professional than personal, and students often socialize less than they had in their undergraduate years.

“I mean, we talk to each other, but that’s [been] more recent. But a lot of students don’t talk to each other even if they share an office, if it’s an office full of cubicles.”

Fruetel says he’s taken steps as president to build relations with the graduate student community.

“When I’ve felt bummed out, it’s because I felt like I didn’t have anyone to hang out with or talk to. I get up, get to school, work hard and it’s seven at night and I’m looking to get out and do something fun, but there’s no one to do it with.”

“You feel kind of alone in grad school.”


graduate studies, Mental health, Student Wellness Services

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