By Sara Carroll Johnson

Mental Well-Being for Graduate Students

May is Mental Health Awareness month. Because I have spent the past five years as a clinical psychology graduate student, hardly a day goes by that I do not think about mental health, my own and that of others. Each day when I go into work, I do my best to help clients learn new skills for improving their quality of life and managing the distressing impact of anxiety, depression, and past trauma.

As graduate students, we can be tempted to sacrifice our mental health in service of other priorities. I’d like to invite us to receive this month as an invitation to give special attention to our mental health and well-being. Like psychotherapists who commonly use a biopsychosocial-spiritual model of health to conceptualize well-being, we too need to acknowledge our multifaceted nature and make space for concerns related to physical health, mental health, social health, and spiritual health. Each of these areas influences the others. Sectioning off each of these areas into their own compartments can make us feel more in control, but it is important to remember we are holistic beings, created and dearly loved by God.

As a clinician, I like to take a strengths-based approach to mental health as opposed to a deficit-oriented one. We know that graduate school can be a minefield for stressors, including assignment deadlines, heavy workload, limited finances, demanding clinical rotations, co-occurring difficult life events, etc. As a graduate student, I have experienced all of these to some degree throughout my training. I am also a therapist who has provided psychotherapy to other graduate students and have seen the toll situational stressors such as these can have on mental health. They can chip away at our coping resources and, if unaddressed, can lead to maladaptive behavioral patterns and poor mental health. The good news is there are areas we can build up that function as buffers against the impact of these stressors.

Psychological flexibility

More than optimism, psychological flexibility involves an open stance toward positive and negative events, both internally and externally. Many of my clients have spent decades compartmentalizing their lives and avoiding their pain just to get from one day to the next. This is especially common in people who have experienced trauma. The health consequences of avoidance can result in elevated stress hormones and an increased risk for disease, as well as depression and anxiety. Avoidance ultimately functions as a barrier to our brains doing what they are designed to do, which is to heal and process experiences. Maintaining a flexible stance toward stressful circumstances allows space for healing and recovery. Psychological flexibility also increases our ability to experience positive emotions, such as joy and contentment.

I often imagine myself as a rubber band, able to absorb stress and return to my original shape when the force of pain and stress has relented. For me, psychological flexibility is possible because of a deep awareness that I am forever tethered to God through Christ. In his mercy and through suffering, God has worked faith into my soul with the assurance that this tether can never be severed. Knowing that I am ultimately safe in God gives me the courage to face pain and grief head-on, especially my own.

Emotion regulation

This goes hand in hand with psychological flexibility. When we find ourselves in an acutely stressful event or in a more prolonged stressful season, we can practice emotion regulation skills by pausing and asking ourselves what we are experiencing and adapt our experience of the emotion to the practical demands of the present situation. If experience of an emotional event is deferred (anger, sadness, etc.), it is important to remember to process it later. This is a skill that can be learned and practiced; nobody is born with this ability! Therapy can help, but self-monitoring activities such as journaling or sharing with a friend can also be effective in learning this skill.

Growth in this area has been especially fruitful for me personally. I can recall a time in the not-so-distant past when not only was I lacking this skill, but I had very little interest in developing it. Having a dynamic inner life was unimportant to me. I thought rationality and logic were better ways of coping. I had heard so many times to not allow my spirituality to be dictated by emotional experiences that it seemed wiser to tuck them away out of sight. As long as I could manage my outward behaviors, that was all that mattered. Intentional practice of solitude and inviting the Holy Spirit to inhabit every part of my being, including my emotions, helped me to cultivate a more emotionally healthy spirituality. It has also made me less afraid of experiencing and witnessing pain.

Strong relationships with colleagues

Research shows having supportive relationships with peers and mentors within a graduate program is a predictor of student well-being and academic success. Graduate school can be isolating at times, especially in programs without a defined cohort model or during extended periods of research and writing. When this is the case, it is especially important to reach out and nurture relationships, whether it be through sharing a meal, walking around campus, or sending a quick email to check-in. Investing in this area is not only beneficial for our own mental health and well-being, but for others. Collegial atmospheres and strong, supportive networks help all of us to weather the storms of academic life. 

The importance of strong relationships with colleagues became salient for me after my mother died during my first year of graduate school. During the weeks and months immediately after her death, I moved through life like a sleepwalker and relied on my community for support in ways I could not have imagined when I began my doctoral program. Classmates shared notes, professors granted extensions, and encouraging words were shared in abundance. These relationships carried me and because of these dear people (whose faces I still picture and treasure in my heart), I did not fall behind in my academic program. But most importantly, I experienced the love of God through them.

God's tender love

We can trust that the Lord desires good things for us. Be reminded of his tender love and care for his people, especially for those who suffer in body, mind, and spirit. If tenderness is sensitivity to pain, we can be assured that God sees us and in fact experiences our pain as if it were his own. Just as we are called to show mercy and compassion to others who suffer, we must also direct that same tenderness to our own selves and open our hearts to healing, attending to our own mental health needs and seeking help when we need it.


Photo by Matt Moloney on StockSnap

About the Author

Sara Carroll Johnson holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from Georgia Southern University. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she is completing a postdoctoral fellowship in health psychology with a focus in palliative care. While her clinical work is primarily with older adults, her dissertation research was focused on mental health and suicide prevention in graduate students. In her spare time, Sara can be found cycling, walking along the Rio Grande, and serving in her parish.

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