Supporting Graduate Student Mental Health and Wellness

Villanova joins Council of Graduate Schools in creating foundational document; peer mentorship program shows promise among a host of new initiatives

graduate students in group discussion

VILLANOVA, Pa. – Under the leadership of Emory Woodard, PhD, Dean of Graduate Studies in Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), the College has made progress in recognizing and addressing issues around graduate student mental health and wellness, topics that have become more prominent in higher education across the country in recent years.

Recent research suggests that 39% of graduate students suffer from depression and 41% suffer from anxiety, and this was before the immense challenges to all of our mental wellness posed by COVID-19,” Dr. Woodard said.

Even before the pandemic, Dr. Woodard began researching and planning strategies for supporting graduate student mental health, in collaboration with his fellow graduate deans and leaders from key University offices. Experts on campus who contributed to the conversations included Joan Whitney, PhD, Associate Vice President and Executive Director of the University Counseling Center, who shared the resources of the Center and the unique challenges of serving the graduate student population; Nicole Subik, Director of Learning Support Services, who discussed accommodations for students with mental health diagnoses; Christopher Schmidt, PhD, LPC, LMFT, Associate Professor in the Department of Education and Counseling, who presented the QPR suicide prevention program; Irene Kan, PhD, Director of the Graduate Psychology Program, who discussed a workshop series she developed for graduate psychology students to support their mental wellness: and Michael Zubey, JD, University Vice President and General Counsel, who presented legal guidelines for supporting and accommodating students facing mental health challenges.

Partnerships with national organizations outside Villanova have also been instrumental in developing programs to support graduate students holistically.

Dr. Woodard was asked to participate in a Graduate Student Mental Health Workshop sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and the Jed Foundation, which evolved into a virtual event and was held in October 2020. Out of that workshop emerged the foundational report Supporting Graduate Student Mental Health and Well-being: Evidence-Informed Recommendations for the Graduate Community, which documents research, sets goals and provides tactics, and of which Villanova University is a signatory.

A Framework on Graduate Student Mental Health: CGS Members Share Ideas and Guidance

In March 2021, Dr. Woodard participated in a webinar, A Framework on Graduate Student Mental Health: CGS Members Share Ideas and Guidance. The webinar features graduate deans whose colleges have formally committed to the CGS graduate student mental health recommendations and are using the document as a framework for action on their campuses. In the webinar, Dr. Woodard enumerated the steps that Villanova has taken and will continue to pursue to support graduate student mental health. These include:

  • Conducting a University-wide survey to assess the mental wellness of Villanova graduate students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering, Villanova School of Business, M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing and Charles Widger School of Law.
  • Partnering with the College of Professional Studies to develop a series of mental health workshops geared toward graduate and adult learners.
  • Initiating a group counseling program for graduate students in partnership with University Counseling Center.
  • Working with The Reflect Organization to create a new peer mentorship program for graduate students.

The Reflect Organization is a mental wellness nonprofit with college and university chapters around the country, dedicated to empowering students to foster a culture of authenticity, self-love and allyship on campus. The peer mentorship program launched at Villanova in spring 2021 as a pilot program and was renewed this fall. So far, 198 graduate students signed up to participate as either a group facilitator or member. The program offers graduate students an opportunity to seek support from and offer support to their peers in the group. Discussion topics may include challenges around the pandemic, work/life balance, career development, networking, and stress- and time-management. Peer facilitators participate in a training program with Reflect before leading the groups.

“In periods of transition and uncertainty, opportunities for students to support each other are essential. Having just one person there to listen, empathize and provide non-judgmental support increases protective factors like school belonging and the ability to seek help when necessary,” said Haley Mankin, Reflect Program Manager.

Lamar Golden, a student in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program, served as a peer facilitator last spring and this fall. He sees the value in the groups as not only an avenue to share struggles and support but also as an opportunity to broaden perspectives by speaking with new people. For him, actively working toward resolution was a key topic that emerged.

“This project provides an opportunity to talk with other students and help them deal with any issues that could interfere with academic progress,” Golden said. “I hope to provide insight that may help others or influence them positively. I have always been someone that other people find comfortable with confiding in beneficial.”

MPA student Melanie Menkevich enjoyed participating in the peer mentoring groups last spring and became a peer facilitator, in part, as a way to get out of her comfort zone.

“It's important for Villanova to develop an initiative like this because mental health is so important, and students need resources to cope, especially considering the events of the past two years,” she said. “The participants just wanted people to talk to and to share resources with. Everyone had very different experiences, for example, some of us were working, and others had never had a job before and were unsure of how to navigate finding one.”

Dr. Woodard recognizes these initiatives as important steps in addressing complex and evolving issues and sees these connections across the University as the foundation for future growth and a commitment to keep graduate student mental health a priority.

“In building supportive meaningful partnerships, sometimes the conversations will be difficult,” Dr. Woodard said. “But as you are engaging in these conversations, you will realize that there are a lot of natural intersections. Communication is the key. If you have the conversation, you may realize that important progress is being made that you can build upon.”

About Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Since its founding in 1842, Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has cultivated knowledge, understanding and intellectual courage for a purposeful life in a challenged and changing world. With 39 majors across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, it is the oldest and largest of Villanova’s colleges, serving more than 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students each year. The College is committed to a teacher-scholar model, offering outstanding undergraduate and graduate research opportunities and a rigorous core curriculum that prepares students to become critical thinkers, strong communicators and ethical leaders with a truly global perspective.

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