At its Wednesday meeting, the Graduate Student Council (GSC) discussed graduate student mental health initiatives, resources and policies. The Council also covered plans for an upcoming town hall meeting on mental health for graduate students.
Updates from council members
Social chair and Division of Literature, Culture and Languages Ph.D. student Gabby Badica shared plans for a summer event taking place in the first two weeks of August, which aims to foster community within the graduate student committee over the summer.
According to Diversity and Advocacy Committee (DAC) liaison and aeronautics and astronautics engineering Ph.D. candidate Ana Tarano, the New Graduate Student Orientation (NGSO) event, “Breaking Bubbles and Talking Identity” has been finalized for Sept. 18.
Tarano also discussed the survey that the GSC and DAC conducted a year ago and her plans to analyze the data. Tarano plans to focus specifically on results from the School of Engineering and to identify areas that the survey may have missed.
Guests and panelists at the meeting emphasized the need for more mental health resources on campus, the unique stressors that the graduate student community face and the need for policy changes and initiatives aimed at improving mental health accessibility on campus.
The panelists featured were Dr. Patti Gumport, vice provost of graduate education (VPGE), Dr. Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost of student affairs (VPSA), Dr. Ken Hsu, assistant vice provost and director of the Graduate Life Office (GLO), Dr. Chris Griffith, dean of students and Dr. Jim Jacobs, associate vice provost and executive director of Vaden Health Center. The leaders outlined their roles in protecting the mental health and wellbeing of students, the challenges they face and the steps that they are taking to address them. Within each department, targeting mental health and wellness issues was described as being a primary focus.
Brubaker-Cole said that the Student Affairs Department is one of the main avenues for resources that address mental health and wellbeing. Brubaker-Cole said that she is responsible for setting strategic directions and priorities for the department.
“Mental health and mental well-being are two of the most important areas that Student Affairs is planning for currently as part of its focus for the next five to seven years,” she said.
Hsu described the targeted and structured approach that GLO takes when dealing with mental health issues. He said that the issue of mental health and wellness is viewed along a continuum with four major sections which include living and thriving, stress and coping, symptoms and health and diagnosis and treatment.
Gumport said that at the VPGE, work is done to promote mental health awareness in departments and schools and that this initiative includes both faculty and staff. She said that a recent policy, which requires departments to explicitly make their advising expectations available to students, recently was approved.
Griffith and Jacobs outlined some of the challenges that they have faced within their respective departments with regards to providing quality care to large quantity of students and removing mental health stigma.
According to Griffith, some of her main roles are to ensure that students have information and access to mental health resources and to remove obstacles that may hinder access for students. She noted the stigma among graduate students about seeking mental health at both the personal and communal level.
“There are hurdles that sometimes are self-imposed, and it is my responsibility to help students get over those hurdles,” she said.
Jacobs said that a problem that his department has faced in dealing with mental health issues on campus is defining the scope of practice. According to Jacobs, balancing the slow turnover rate for long-term patients with the need for making mental health resources readily available to a large number of students on campus is a particular issue. As such, expanding the quantity of psychologists available may not effectively address the need for increased access to mental health resources.
Jacobs said that students who need non-clinical services sometimes seek out clinical services since other options are not available, which places stress on available resources. To address this, Vaden is pursuing ways to promote non-clinical wellbeing on campus by seeking out mental health programs that could be implemented.
Council members emphasized that the current resources on campus do not adequately meet the needs of students, particularly within the graduate student community, where isolation and work stressors have a marked negative effect on mental health and wellbeing.
“I think a lot of the stressors that grad students experience come from work problems … Here are a lot of lonely stressors in grad school,” Badica said. “If we could work on that, I think we could [take] a lot of preventative [measures].”
Jacobs acknowledged that there has been a struggle to effectively meet the mental health needs of the community at Stanford as well as at other universities. However, he pointed out that Stanford is leading peer institutions in some aspects.
“One of the things that we actually do well … that we are considered national leaders in, is case management … of the most severe, often requiring hospitalization, cases,” he said.
He also said that Stanford’s mental health professional to student ratio is double the norm for state universities.
In the question and answer session that followed the panel discussion, concerns about involuntary leaves of absences emerged. Stanford is currently facing a class-action lawsuit, which claims that the University has discriminated against students with mental health disabilities, particularly in the context of involuntary leaves of absence.
Laura Kellman, a first-year medical student, asked the panel to address issues raised in the lawsuit, such as the procedure for leave of absences and the situations that may cause a student to be dismissed from housing.
Tarangelo highlighted the difficulty that students face when these leave of absences are involuntary and involve abusive home situations.
According to Griffiths, the process for leave of absences is individualized, extensive and collaborative. She said that the procedure involves a review by a committee of three deans for each case which involves a meeting with the student. The committee then recommends whether the student should be required to take a leave to Griffiths and the student has the chance to appeal Griffith’s decision to the vice provost of student affairs.
“There is a process by which students can be heard … and can appeal an adverse decision,” she said.
Griffiths said that it is a great priority is to ensure that the student’s transition back into university life is as smooth as possible. She said that her office is working to determine the resources that students need to make this possible.
Kellman asked specifically about whether self-harm is viewed as a violation of the Fundamental Standard.
“Self-harm is never considered under the fundamental standard,” Griffiths said.
She explained that self-harm often occurs within the context of a number other factors when considering leaves of absences and is rarely considered on its own.
Concerns about financial aid for mental health services were also addressed during the question and answer session. The panelists said that grants at the Financial Aid Offices are for unanticipated emergency expenses rather than for chronic long term issues. According to the panelists, other options for students include the Opportunity Fund offered by the Diversity and First-Gen Office (DGEN) and loans.
Town hall meeting
The plans for a town hall meeting with graduate students were discussed by the councillors and panelists in the last half hour. The event will take place later in the fall, and will consist of a question and answer session and round table discussions among small groups of students.
Tentatively, the meeting will feature panelists from The Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education (VPGE), The Office of the Vice Provost of Student Affairs (VPSA), Vaden and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and the Graduate Life Office (GLO) and Student Activities and Leadership (SAL).
Brubaker-Cole said that the meeting would be helpful in providing information on the mental health concerns that are prevalent within the graduate student community.
“We were very concerned particularly, because among graduate students, mental health problems are particularly prevalent,” co-chair Amy Tarangelo said. “[For] YiChing and I, as co-chairs, one of our big priorities for this year is to try to work with the university to improve policy on mental health and try to get more resources.”
Contact Ruth-Ann Armstrong at ruthanna ‘at’ stanford.edu and Batool Al Jabiry at baljabiry130 ‘at’ student.fuhsd.org