Secure Your Own Mask Before Assisting Others

This is a student blog piece written by Natalie Hong, a third year doctoral student in the Clinical Science Ph.D. program at Florida International University.

Beginning and maintaining my graduate career in clinical psychology has challenged me in countless ways: I moved away from “home” for the first time, to a state where I knew no one; I began to receive a stipend that paid me less than half of what I was making previously; I became intimately familiar with imposter syndrome; I realized that “research is mesearch” was more personally relevant than I had thought; I struggled to establish boundaries and learned the hard way that I couldn’t do everything (well), no matter how hard I tried… the list goes on. Of course, there is also the flip side – one that is more than a silver lining – that includes the many incredible learning experiences I’ve been afforded – pros that outweigh the cons. But some days, I still find myself struggling. In hindsight, these days are usually preceded by periods of overwhelming stress and a lack of self-care – a troubling combination.

In some ways, it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone in this. There is a growing body of literature demonstrating that graduate students experience significantly higher rates of mental health concerns than the general public, with doctoral level students reporting some of the most concerning experiences (Evans, Bira, Gastelum, Weiss, & Vanderford, 2018; Levecque, Anseel, De Beuckalaer, Van der Heyden, & Gisle, 2017; UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly, 2014). The extent to which the academic environment contributes to this pattern of findings is unclear. While it could be that the individuals accepted to these programs are inherently more likely to experience symptoms of psychopathology, research suggests that work and organizational context factors (e.g., job demands, job control), relationships with mentors, and work-life balance are among variables significantly associated with graduate student mental health, indicating potential targets for intervention (Evans et al., 2018; Leveque et al., 2017). Regardless, these findings suggest the need to support graduate students in identifying and addressing mental health concerns.

As trainees in clinical psychology in particular, it’s important to remember that in order to care for others, we need to care for ourselves first. In other words: secure your own mask before assisting others. Below are some tips for evaluating your own mental health needs, as well as promoting self-care practices*.

Questions to ask/check in with yourself about:

  • Do I tend to overreact to situations?
  • (When) have I been able to relax?
  • Am I often frustrated, worried, or irritable?
  • To what extent do I find my work exciting, rewarding, and/or valuable?
  • Do I feel supported (by friends, family, and/or colleagues)?
  • Am I able to stop worrying about work when I’m trying to do other things?
  • How is my physical health (e.g., sleep, exercise, eating habits)?
  • When do I make time for my personal (i.e., non-work related) priorities/values?

Suggestions for taking care of yourself:

  • Practice self-care.  Self-care may look different for each person – lounging on the couch, watching TV or movies, exercising, calling friends/family, reading, or any other hobby you love
  • Be selective.  You do not need to (and should not) say yes to every opportunity presented to you – setting limits and being thoughtful about what you invest your time and energy into is an important skill to develop
  • Be honest with yourself about what you can handle alone and when it may be time to get help. If you are experiencing clinically significant symptoms, get help! Most campuses offer student health center counseling services or at least can assist with finding another mental health resource in your community

These tips are just a handful of potential recommendations to check in and address concerns related to graduate student mental health and work-life balance, based on my own experiences. Please leave additional thoughts in the comments below!

About the Author

Natalie Hong is a third year doctoral student in the Clinical Science Ph.D. program at Florida International University.

References

Evans, T.M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J.B., Weiss, T., & Vanderford, N.L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature, 36(3), 282-284.

UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly. (2014). Graduate student happiness and well-being report.Retrieved from: http://ga.berkeley.edu/wellbeingreport.

Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckalaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868-879.

Footnotes

*Utilized the DASS-21 and Self-Care Assessment as resources to guide these suggestions

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