Harvard Economics Department Begins Efforts to Improve Ph.D. Student Mental Health

The Harvard University Department of Economics has begun its efforts of advancing its graduate students’ mental health after a survey distributed to Ph.D. students in the department found that they are experiencing high percentages of anxiety and depression.

Conducted by Harvard University Health Services in 2018, the mental health survey found that the rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts among economics graduate students were higher than among undergraduate students or a cohort of the same age range in the general population.

“If you read these studies it’s distressing, so it’s something we worry about, it’s something I worry about quite a bit,” said Department of Economics chair Dr. Jeremy Stein. “We’re trying to think of ways to do better.”

A possible cause for the higher depression rates among the students could be the high-stakes environment involved in graduate school, Harvard Health Services director Paul J. Barreira told the Harvard Crimson.

“Graduate students eat, breathe, sleep, what’s happening in their department. Their whole life is about getting their doctoral degree,” said Barreira, who helped organize the survey. “The power dynamics and the relationship dynamics are utterly different with graduate students than it is for College students. And the stakes are much higher.”

After seeing the results from the survey, Stein hopes to improve the general doctoral culture within his department and the advising process.

“With respect to our graduate students, the advising process and the culture around the Ph.D. program more generally, we have some real work to do,” Stein said. “To be clear, this isn’t just us — many of these issues are profession-wide.”

Matthew Basilico, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, said the survey is a key first step in addressing mental health issues existing in the economics field.

“People recognize this as an issue in economics. Even describing the problem and getting people’s attention focused on it has been a really important step,” said Basilico, who worked with fellow graduate student Valentin Bolotnyy and Barreira on the study.

The economics department has already begun to foster more personal advising relationships and peer support networks to expand openness and add an additional layer of support for the Ph.D. students, Basilico said.

Basilico hopes these adjustments will have effects above student health.

“There are some features of economics that can be improved upon and will improve mental wellbeing and will lead to better research and better outputs for humanity.”

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