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Several graduate students in the Department of English and Comparative Literature – as well as the DOECL’s graduate student organization, CoLEAGS — have been organizing to research and address mental health struggles within the department’s graduate student community. Two of these students are PhD candidates Rachel Warner and Jillian Kern

As Jillian Kern describes her concerns: “There’s limited formal data on this, but we know there’s been a really high prevalence of mental illness and risk among PhD students even before COVID. PhD students are likely at increased risk for suicidal ideation and death by suicide compared to undergraduates. We also are seeing a lot of data that suggests for workers and students nationwide, there’s a worsening mental health crisis as we accommodate the pandemic in our working lives and institutions and attempt to return to in-person work structures.”

Read below about Warner and Kern’s efforts to improve the graduate experience in the DOECL.

DLC Lab:  Can you tell me a bit about the work you’ve been doing personally and on behalf of COLEAGS to support graduate student mental health in the DOECL?

Warner: “We have held two forums recently–one exploring alt-ac Career advising needs to be expanded to eliminate the feeling of helplessness and lack of options. 

The most recent forum was mental health, self-care, and suicide prevention and was led by Dr. David Obergfell. The thesis of the project was building connection within our community. Dr. Oberfell’s argument was that the biggest risk factors are rejection and a sense of non-belonging. Most often these feelings are perceived, but the best way to assuage that and address it is to promote a culture of connectedness, care, and checking in with one another. It is important to make people feel seen and heard. 

Additional service work I have been involved in is the organization of last year’s Out of the Darkness campus walk which is sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. This year’s UNC Out of the Darkness walk is April 15. It is the product of a collaboration of many student groups working around mental health—Active Minds, Mental Health Ambassadors. With events like these, we see there is a readiness for wellness conversations.

Our age group in particular is a suicide hotspot (15-30), and with the piled on stressors of relocating and finding that sense of belonging, we can foster a better community. It all starts with conversations and checking in. It is never inappropriate to check-in.”

Kern: “After experiencing a community loss this year, there were a lot of quiet discussions going on behind the scenes about how to grieve together, how to support one another, and how to create a sense of community support. We’re lucky to be in a department where a lot of people were invested in this, and many representatives on our CoLEAGS team were interested in using our grad organization as a resource to make those changes. We’ve worked to bring in some crisis support and our Professional Development team did a lot of work investigating risk and protective factors for graduate student mental health, and that culminated in a really powerful training forum on graduate student mental health with Dr. David Obergfell, who is UNC’s Executive Director of Student Well-Being.

But one thing that these efforts revealed is that we weren’t sure exactly what kind of problem or needs we were facing in the first place. With high workloads in particular, not everyone is able to attend forums or engage in extended discussion to share those things. People wanted to help or create a culture of support but didn’t know where to start. So I have been working this term to develop a data collection tool and get real specifics on what our collective mental health looks like, as people who are both students and workers, and hopefully that will help us focus our advocacy and help the department staff and faculty direct their support energy where it’s most needed. On April 21st, we launched a detailed mental health and wellbeing assessment survey for our graduate students, aligned with existing research foci and inventories, so we will be able to compare our numbers with the research for clearer conclusions. This survey is also an educational tool, because it’s set up to give you your own interpreted data at the end for your own reference.”

DLC Lab: Where do you see your work going? What are your long-term goals?

Warner: “I’d like to see more collaboration with faculty. There has to be faculty input and proactive initiative to create a community of care, and we need a healthier work culture. 

In more concrete terms, we want to see things like mental-health panels in the onboarding of new students. There are unique stressors to the graduate humanities. We need to be more caring, and stand to be a little more kind and in less of a rush to judgment.

I’d also like to see more infrastructure scaffolded into training and regular conversations. There is a false idea that talking about suicide and mental health will increase the risk, but many studies have proven that this is not true. The more you talk about it, the less likely someone is to harm themselves in that way.

You don’t need a degree in psychology to be a little nicer and to promote a healthier community of wellness. We can do more to lay a critical infrastructure. It is no one’s fault when someone dies this way, but we can all do more to build an environment for safety. We have to foster ways of bringing people into the fold.

I’d also like to be sure to flag the Triangle Survivors of Suidice—this organization is for family members and close friends of someone who has committed suicide.”

Kern: “I would love to get a standard data collection cycle in place. I’m hoping that over the next couple years, CoLEAGS will implement a yearly survey so this data is always available and we’re not just guessing about how to best support and advocate for each other. And as soon as I have data (the more the better), I’m hoping to bring that to our faculty and department, who have expressed interest in resources to help them provide informed support. By the fall, I think we’ll have information to share with each other and our department, a much more open ongoing conversation about these needs and risks, and have the groundwork in place to start this mental health focus and support from day 1 that a graduate student joins our community.”

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