The Mental Health and Well-Being of Master’s and Doctoral Psychology Students at an Urban Canadian University

Katey E Park, Annabel Sibalis, Brittany Jamieson
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 16  •  2021  •  pp. 429-447

Although the high rates of stress and psychological distress in graduate students has been well-documented, Canadian samples are underrepresented in the extant literature. The present study explores prevalence rates of burnout and psychological distress in a sample of psychology master’s and doctoral students at a university in a large urban Canadian city, as well as factors relating to their well-being, social support and stress.

There are economic and productivity setbacks stemming from high stress and mental health challenges. Burnout and psychological distress of graduate students are associated with hindered academic progress, mental and physical health challenges, and reduced productivity. Further, emotionally exhausted doctoral students are at heightened risk for non-completion of their degrees.

Sixty-two psychology graduate students completed an online survey that assessed burnout, psychological distress (anxiety, depression, and stress symptoms), perceived social support, collegiate sense of community, financial strain, and rank-ordered nine domains of graduate school stressors.

The present paper contributes to the body of knowledge that graduate students residing in an urban Canadian city experience high rates of burnout and psychological distress. High levels of social support outside the academe were not protective factors in mitigating burnout.

Participants reported high levels of perceived social support and sense of community. However, over half (60%) of respondents met criteria for burnout, and one in three students met criteria for problematic levels of stress, anxiety, and/or depression. In a rank ordering question, “thesis, dissertation or other research”, “classwork” and “finances” ranked in the top three most stressful aspects of graduate school for respondents.

Graduate students experience unique stressors related to their mental health and well-being that differ from undergraduate students and young working professionals. Mental health practitioners may be better equipped to support graduate students with knowledge of these specific factors impacting mental health and well-being.

Based on these findings, four areas of recommendations for psychology graduate institutions and training programs are discussed. These recommendations highlight the need for change across systemic levels and call for integrative efforts to improve wellbeing for psychology graduate students.

Enhancement of doctoral student well-being could contribute to long-term benefits in academia and in higher education.

The study took place before the emergence of COVID-19, which has undoubtably impacted graduate students globally. Research on student experiences during this unprecedented time is needed, as are additional supports (e.g., virtual programming to reduce social isolation; contingency plans for data collection).

graduate students, mental health, burnout, job demands-resources model, well-being
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