Kirkland Hall at Vanderbilt University. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced his administration will cancel some student loan debts. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Vanderbilt University has lost four doctoral students in the biomedical sciences program to suicide in the past two years, according to interviews with students and emails from the university.
The deaths have added stress in a community of only a few hundred students already struggling with intense professional pressure and heightened the demand for counseling during the isolation brought on by the pandemic. Mental health services are so strained that some students say they can’t keep up and face lengthy waits.
Health challenges posed by COVID-19 include increased rates of anxiety and depression reported across the U.S., specifically by people 18-29. Rates of suicide have steadily increased over the past decade, according to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. On Dec. 7, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a 53-page advisory detailing what he characterized as a youth mental health crisis, as well as ways to address its challenges. Campuses including Dartmouth and UNC have experienced sharp increases in students reporting declining mental health. Like Vanderbilt, both campuses reported multiple deaths by suicide since the onset of COVID-19 in 2020.
In a statement, Vanderbilt said it “is committed to a culture of caring in which the well-being of all community members—our extraordinary students, the faculty who teach them, and the staff who play an immeasurable role in the success of the university—is enhanced and supported. We strive to foster a culture of openness through brave dialogue and honest self-reflection by investing in the mental health and wholeness of every member of the Vanderbilt family.”
Official communications from Vanderbilt have not directly acknowledged the deaths by suicide, which occurred in 2020 and last fall. Campus-wide emails about the passing of a student typically include cause of death, unless it is suicide. Last fall, the university mailed copies of “A Year Like No Other” to students and their families, favorably depicting how Vanderbilt has handled the pandemic. In the foreward, new Chancellor Daniel Diermeier calls the school’s pandemic management its “proudest moment.”
Stung by how the 190-page book neglected mental health challenges facing the student body, biomedical sciences graduate students point to it as an example of an out-of-touch administration.
Students who go through Vanderbilt’s University Counseling Center (UCC) report months-long waits and difficulty securing consistent meeting times. Demand for mental health services is so high that the university has a dedicated counselor for the 400 Ph.D. students in the biomedical sciences.
“It’s been like pulling teeth getting any type of long term support. The temporary care is just not very good. They’ll see you once a month, maybe,” said Lindsay Breidenbach, a third-year doctoral student studying human genetics. Graduate students often identify with smaller groups, or “cohorts,” who started classes together or share an area of study. Breidenbach has lost two classmates from two different cohorts, one in January 2020 and another in October 2021. “I was only able to talk to my therapist from the UCC twice from January to May. I was dealing with grief and I was dealing with the pandemic, but the whole system was just overloaded.”
Grief and COVID-19 magnify stress for young adults struggling with intense professional pressure, often determined by the single senior faculty member in charge of the lab where graduate students receive a majority of their academic training. Each lab’s principal investigator, usually a professor, sets expectations for student-workers and oversees all aspects of lab training.
When the pandemic hit, Breidenbach was grieving the loss of a classmate while she prepared to commit to a lab. She had come to Vanderbilt planning to study synthetic chemistry, a field with a reputation for being male dominated and highly competitive, but switched to human genetics after rotating through several lab environments, a decision she made for her mental health. She’s now working in a “dry” lab, where research relies more on computer processing and data analysis than laboratory equipment like test tubes or mice.
A difference in a lab’s focus can guarantee more or less predictable working conditions, according to Breidenbach and other students. It can help modulate stress in a time when other factors feel uncontrollable. A dry lab allowed Breidenbach to work remotely more easily and better predict her hours.
“The expectation is that you work more than forty hours a week, that you’re willing to come in on weekends, that if something needs to be done over a holiday, you do it,” explained a graduate student studying cellular biology. She asked that her name be withheld over concerns about retaliation from Vanderbilt or later in her professional career.
She credits her ability to maintain her mental health to having existing experience with counseling before she came to Vanderbilt. “They offer workshops and time management and meditation, but I find that kind of insulting because it’s saying that I’m the problem, I’m the reason my mental health is bad, not this ridiculous situation. My therapist was saying today: I can teach you deep breathing techniques all day but if you work the way you work you’re going to feel like s—. That’s just the expectation.”
Students also cite imposter syndrome, the feeling that one hasn’t earned the qualifications or doesn’t deserve the prestige associated with a position, as a pervasive mental health challenge among graduate students.
“The first day, one of my colleagues in my lab handed me a paper about the research he was doing and told me it should be very easy to understand,” said Grayson Ruhl, who started his Ph.D. in biomedical informatics at Vanderbilt in 2017. “I didn’t understand anything on that paper. It makes you think, maybe there was a mixup here. Maybe I slipped through the cracks.’”
Ruhl left his program in 2019 despite good grades, being on track to produce research in his second year, and a good relationship with his mentor, his peers, and his lab.
“Everything was always really good on paper, but I knew, personally, that something was wrong with always feeling like I was in over my head,” said Ruhl. “It’s a weird feeling. I’m pretty convinced at this point that every single student in that program had some level of imposter syndrome.” Ruhl now works as a data analyst in healthcare.
As they face a variety of challenges, graduate students are joining together. This fall, students successfully petitioned Dean Lawrence Marnett for a raise when they did not receive the typical annual adjustment for cost-of-living and inflation. This raised the Ph.D. stipend for many biomedical science students from $32,500 to $33,500, which is among the highest for doctoral students across Vanderbilt. According to an email in mid-December, the amount will increase again to $35,000 in July. Students also hope for more standardized working protections across labs and more accessible healthcare, specifically for mental health.
Risk factors and warning signs of suicide can be found here. Resources for getting help for yourself or someone at risk of suicide can be found here. The National Suicde Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
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