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Ecologist Meghan Duffy Prioritizes Graduate Student Mental Health

Dr. Meghan Duffy. Credit: Cy Abdelnour.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Dr. Meghan Duffy has spent more time than usual thinking about stress, a topic the University of Michigan professor blogged about and has discussed with students in the past.

Feeling it was valuable to centralize and coordinate efforts while addressing structural issues, the AAAS Leshner Fellow last year formed a task force at the university’s Rackham Graduate School to prioritize graduate student mental health and well-being alongside academic success.

Duffy, who primarily teaches the ecology and evolutionary biology half of introductory biology, originally considered focusing on mental health for undergraduates and resources needed to help them in introductory STEM classes taught in giant, impersonal lecture halls, and also in how to prepare for tough exams.

But whenever Duffy discussed student mental health needs within departments and with mental health professionals, the conversations shifted to providing self-help solutions for graduate students like lunchtime yoga or mindfulness classes, instead of addressing it as a systemic issue. She took that as a sign that a multi-prong approach was critical to addressing student needs.  

“If there’s systemic issues, you’re not going to self-help your way out of a toxic lab environment and so we need to be addressing the systemic issues too,” Duffy says.

She worked with administration, faculty, graduate students, and mental health professionals to get the task force off the ground that she’s now leading.

The task force spent its first year reviewing what’s known in the literature about factors that influence graduate student mental health and what’s happening at the University of Michigan. They’ve held town halls, coffees and other events with faculty, staff and graduate students, using those sessions to identify factors influencing graduate students’ mental health and working to address those.  Duffy later produced a summary of those findings in Dynamic Ecology.

During the feedback sessions, Duffy heard from students and mental health professionals that they were triggered when closing in on a milestone they weren’t sure they’d pass. That’s got the task force thinking about how those programs can offer more flexibility.

“It seems like there’s one big test and everything rides on it and you don’t know what happens if you don’t pass,” Duffy says. “(If) the culture expects perfection or has a real culture of chronic overwork, you’re going to see a problem.”

The task force recently submitted a report to the school that calls on the graduate school and individual programs to prioritize graduate student mental health and well-being with academic success. And graduate programs should reduce the observed inequalities marginalized groups experience. 

Beyond that, Duffy remains busy in other fields, including her own research field: the ecology and evolution of host-parasite interactions in freshwater systems.  Now, she’s especially interested in why microbes sometimes harm or help the host (the freshwater crustacean Daphnia), and how evolution and food systems impact host-parasite interactions. Climate change and public perceptions of it also fascinate her.

At the end of 2019, Duffy published a climate change study in Ecology and Evolution about students’ acceptance of climate change. Her research found that 98 percent of her students believed in climate change before the initial semester even started, but couldn’t explain it.

“I was really surprised that it was that high coming in, and you could make the argument that we were preaching to the choir,” Duffy says.  

The survey showed she didn’t need to spend as much time saying climate change exists. She also learned some students have anxiety about what climate change is doing to the environment. One student even had a panic attack in the middle of her climate change lecture.

“Some of the students were really distressed about what they were learning about climate change, which makes sense,” Duffy says.

Looking ahead, Duffy would like to address mental health among other segments of the university, like faculty and postdocs. People at other universities addressing graduate student mental health have started reaching out to her for advice about how to do this work and set up a task force, prompting Duffy to consider how the task force can share what it’s learned at Michigan with others.

The main thing she wants other academics to understand is that they can make a difference in mental health, even if it isn’t their specialty.

Duffy’s main advice is be supportive, but recognize and set boundaries. Communicate clearly and help create structure. Set up a mentoring plan.

She says faculty can help connect students with existing support at the university and the local area. Regularly checking in with graduate students is important and faculty should mean it when they ask students how they’re doing.

“You certainly should never require that they discuss their mental health!” Duffy says. “But if you notice a change in a student, you can let them know you’re wondering if they’re okay and ask if they might need help connecting with resources.”

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Lenore T. Adkins