By Meghan Chua
Graduate students are six times more likely than the general population to experience depression and anxiety, according to a 2018 study published in Nature Biotechnology. At UW–Madison, a new student group has developed a way to complement university resources on mental health with a proactive approach that brings students together to talk about their challenges, offer advice to one another, and build supportive communities on campus.
Brilliant and Diverse Graduate Research Scholars (BADGRS), founded by graduate students at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID), is a discussion space for grad students, postdocs, and other trainees. They want to destigmatize conversations about mental health.
“We had the idea to start a peer group focused on discussing emotional, psychological, and sociological factors that can impact grad students’ mental health, which we had personally experienced or witnessed in our peers,” said Katie Mueller, one of the founders of BADGRS and a graduate student in the Cellular & Molecular Biology program.
The BADGRS@WID chapter meets monthly to discuss well-being topics such as work/life balance, mentor and mentee relationships, interpersonal dynamics, and social isolation. Each discussion is centered on an anonymized case study that the group’s leaders write based on things they’ve experienced or witnessed.
“The case studies seem to resonate with people because they are written by grad students, for grad students, about common experiences,” Mueller said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard BADGRS attendees say, ‘Oh wow, this could have been written about me.’ We find it helpful to focus critically on cases that are anonymous, but still have many details that feel relevant to a lot of us.
At each meeting, attendees split into smaller groups to start a conversation around the case study. Those smaller conversations open a path to talking about the larger issue at hand.
“Starting with a case study discussion primes people to start thinking about how their own situation relates, and helps people to feel more comfortable talking when we discuss the more challenging and personal concepts,” said Alexis Lawton, a Biochemistry graduate student and founding member of BADGRS.
Mueller noted that the student facilitators aren’t trained therapists, and the group is not a replacement for University Health Services, which offers mental health services including support groups, individual counseling, and 24-hour crisis services for pressing concerns.
“We see BADGRS as a complement to existing services, and a proactive approach,” she said. “You don’t have to already be in crisis to benefit from these kinds of discussions.”
Leading by example starts important conversations
As group leaders, setting an example by opening up about topics that are often difficult for students to talk about is important to facilitating BADGRS meetings, said Biophysics graduate student and founding BADGRS member Kaivalya Molugu.
“Sometimes we have noticed that sharing our personal experiences encouraged others to talk about their own experiences,” Molugu said.
Previously, Molugu said she may not have opened up about the challenges she has faced. But once she saw other graduate students in her lab talking about their struggles, she found it easier to talk to the BADGRS group about her own.
“We have tried to create a safe and supportive community to facilitate conversations about graduate school struggles, and more importantly tried to come up with potential strategies to deal with the problems. We believe that this strategy has helped boost everyone’s personal belief to overcome their struggles,” Molugu said.
For Lawton, a fourth-year grad student, being able to help younger students is also part of the motivation.
“You learn a lot of skills to recognize patterns that are happening in younger grad students or other coworkers,” Lawton said. “It makes you a better mentor and person when you’ve recognized the ways that you’ve grown through various challenges across all phases of graduate school.”
As part of the BADGRS mission, Mueller said the students want to share ways that the university can better support graduate students with faculty and administrators. To that goal, the BADGRS@WID chapter has worked closely with WID Director Jo Handelsman, who brings scenarios that the group discusses at BADGRS to faculty for them to think about things that could happen in their labs.
Group hopes to expand across campus
The BADGRS founders want to expand the program, setting up more student-led groups in other departments. Having a local group would not only create a point of connection for students but also help lower the barrier for them to attend meetings.
“We want to normalize the value of mental health-focused discussions for graduate students and get people actively learning these kinds of soft skills that are so important to succeeding in a graduate research environment,” Mueller said.
The BADGRS@WID chapter is currently developing a toolkit with case studies, local resources on the topics covered, a facilitation guide, and a climate survey – all meant to help someone start their own chapter.
“In order to pull people together, the students have to be the ones that lead that movement,” Lawton said. “We want to make sure that we find students that are also really excited about running these chapters. Student-led student groups have such power.”
The BADGRS@WID chapter wants to help other students start a chapter for their department. Interested students can contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.