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Student Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Bureaucratic barriers at university mental health services

Harvard Gazette
Source: Harvard Gazette

The Nation recently reported that Yale University dismissed (euphemism for expelled) a graduate student who attempted suicide. The student, Grant Mao, a native from Shanghai, had plunged into an unexpected emotional crisis, spiraling into a deep depression following his mother’s heart attack and a breakup with his fiancée. This led to a six-day stay in a hospital, but instead of his expected recovery and graduation, he was expelled, his immigration status jeopardized and threatened with deportation.

Yale’s Mental Health Services are supposed to provide general psychiatric care for all students, but, in fact, like other university mental health services throughout the nation, are inadequate and steeped with bureaucratic barriers. Mao had managed to receive therapy while enrolled, but his academic downturn, he argues, resulted from incompetence and discrimination.

Mao was diagnosed with a depressive disorder, likely affecting his academic performance. But, in spite of a petition to reinstate him signed by some 1000 students, the administration insisted that he did not warrant special accommodation. He appealed, but his appeal was rejected by a faculty review board.

Mao has managed to retain his legal status by stringing together temporary-study programs. He is currently enrolled at the University of New Haven, continuing to receive mental-health treatment at a different provider after being severed from Yale’s healthcare system.

While Mao might be forced to return home soon, without a coveted Yale degree, he’s ultimately made a more enduring case for the future health of his fellow students. “I’m fighting not only for myself but for other people at Yale,” he says, “so other people won’t have the same experience I had.”

Though comprehensive statistics on mental illness in graduate school settings is lacking, stress, anxiety, and depression are commonplace. A study of graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, found that “nearly half of graduate students reported having an ‘emotional or stress-related problem’ within the previous year,” while just one in three received services.

Yet, the take-away from Mao’s case is not the hiring of more therapists, shorter waiting times, or increasing students with an “emotional or stress-related problem” into the stagnant milieu at university mental health services.

Mao spoke of his therapist at Yale’s Mental Health Services as being incompetent. Actually, most university-based therapists are incompetent. But it’s not their fault. It’s the therapies they practice, which haven’t changed much in the last 50 years.

The take-away from Mao’s case is that until the bureaucratic barriers at university mental health services are removed and new therapies emerge, students cannot expect to find relief from their stress-related anxieties, depression, and self-destructive behaviors.

In the meanwhile, one way college students can take charge of their lives and become their own persons—free from the stress-related pressures of having to do what others tell them to do for the rest of their lives—is to distinguish their internal have-tos from want-tos.

Although this approach sounds unbelievably simple, it works—as attested by the attached video of a suicide survivor speaking at the TEDxPenn conference this last spring:


This blog was co-published with

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