Lately, I’ve caught myself drifting a lot – my thoughts wandering far from the task at hand and into unfamiliar territory: finances. I’m sure I am but one of many graduate students who will lose sleep over money matters. Although not technically employed, the expectation in graduate school is that we work full-time at the lab, leaving few hours in the day to work other jobs and therefore supplement our income. This training structure means that many graduate students rely on their stipends as living wages. As an institution that values the contributions of its graduate student community and prides itself in being a world leader in research output, one has to ask – at what cost is this “excellence” achieved?
Time and again, studies have found that graduate students are victim to higher rates of mental illnesses compared to the general population.
A study of over 3,500 PhD students in Belgium this year reported that half of them experienced two symptoms of poor mental health in recent weeks, and a third experienced at least four symptoms – putting them at risk for common psychiatric disorders. The 2013 National College Health Assessment examined data on 125,000 students in the US and reported that almost half said they felt overwhelming anxiety in the prior year.
While no one would claim these adverse mental health effects are due to a single cause, it is informative to look at each potential factor separately. According to Statistics Canada, of the stress reported by those aged 15-24, school accounted for 35%, while financial pressure, work, and limited time accounted for another 34% – factors that are virtually synonymous with a graduate education.
So how big of a role does financial pressure play in negatively impacting mental health? Well, a 2013 analysis of 65 studies revealed that debt separately correlated with increased mental disorder, depression, and suicide completion/attempts. Worryingly, a survey performed by a financial wellness company suggested that 23% of respondents experienced PTSD-like symptoms due to financial stress, and the prevalence was at 36% for millennials. While causation is difficult to establish in these cases, one theory suggests that financial worries lead to increased stress and higher susceptibility to mental health problems.
It is common-practice to try solving the financing problem by offering merits-based grants and/or, as is the case at our department, linking stipend top-ups to external funding. While welcomed by the few recipients, these programs inadvertently tie financial well-being to performance, thus adding to student stress.”
In addition to affecting mental health, financial stress disrupts other aspects of life (which eventually circle back and impact mental health). In a report by the American Psychological Association, over 40% of millennials attributed an inability to live a healthy lifestyle to their financial situation. Evidently, financial stress also limits one’s ability to participate in many stress-relieving activities such as travel, leisurely breaks, or even just relaxing with family. In the study on Belgian PhD students, the largest predictor of mental health problems was an inability to attend to family needs due to conflicting work commitments. One has to wonder how much a financial inability to meet family needs factors into poor mental health of graduate students.
It is common-practice to try solving the financing problem by offering merits-based grants and/or, as is the case at our department, linking stipend top-ups to external funding. While welcomed by the few recipients, these programs inadvertently tie financial well-being to performance, thus adding to student stress. This stress is accentuated by the decreasing pool of available external funds. For example, while the School of Graduate Studies considers the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS) an external award, the Faculty of Medicine does not since they now partially contribute to the award and it is now internally adjudicated. This has led to OGS recipients receiving half as much money in top-up. Additionally, while teaching assistantships offer a suitable alternative income source, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3902, which represents U of T education workers, does not set a limit to the number of positions one student can hold, creating a monopoly by some senior students that disadvantages more junior students.
Admittedly, some universities have begun to take the social impacts of student financial stress into consideration, offering additional increases in stipends for those who are married or are supporting dependent children. This enables more students to make important decisions such as living independently, getting married, or having children – milestones that would be delayed, and personal growth that would be stunted, on a lower stipend. Given the already stressful and competitive nature of graduate school, unnecessary financial strain only serves to decrease student productivity, growth, and mental wellbeing. If academia wants to attract and retain top-tier students, graduate departments must find ways to become more financially supportive of their students.