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Economics Department Starts Initiatives to Improve Student Wellbeing Following Mental Health Survey

Littauer Center for Public Administration Building is home to the Economics Department.
Littauer Center for Public Administration Building is home to the Economics Department. By Mia B. Frothingham
By Sophia S. Armenakas, Crimson Staff Writer

The Economics Department is taking steps to improve its graduate students' mental health in light of a survey conducted among Ph.D. students in the department which showed high percentages of anxiety and depression.

The mental health survey — conducted in 2018 by Harvard University Health Services — found that rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation among graduate students in Economics were significantly higher than among College students or an age-match cohort in the general population.

Economics department chair Jeremy Stein said in an interview earlier this month that he found the study “distressing” and would work with his department to address the issue.

“If you read these studies it’s distressing, so it’s something we worry about, it’s something I worry about quite a bit," Stein said. "We’re trying to think of ways to do better."

The high-stakes environment of graduate school may explain the higher depression rates, according to HUHS Director Paul J. Barreira, who helped organize the survey.

“Graduate students eat, breathe, sleep, what’s happening in their department. Their whole life is about getting their doctoral degree,” Barreira said. “The power dynamics and the relationship dynamics are utterly different with graduate students than it is for College students. And the stakes are much higher.”

Stein said he hopes to improve the general Ph.D. culture in his department and the advising process in light of the survey findings.

“With respect to our graduate students, the advising process and the culture around the Ph.D. program more generally, we have some real work to do,” Stein said. “To be clear, this isn’t just us — many of these issues are profession-wide.”

Ph.D. candidate Matthew Basilico, who worked with Barreira and fellow graduate student Valentin Bolotnyy on the study, said the survey served as an important first step to addressing mental health issues in the field of economics.

“People recognize this as an issue in economics. Even describing the problem and getting people’s attention focused on it has been a really important step,” Basilico said.

He added that he thinks the department must continue to raise awareness, which can take the form of urging people to seek help for mental health issues and creating a more open culture to talking about personal problems.

The department has already worked to cultivate more personal advising relationships and peer support networks to increase openness and add another layer of support, according to Basilico.

“Advisers are seen as people who can be approached as friends to talk personal and professional problems. We’ve been encouraging culture change in discussions about that,” Basilico said. “We run a student support effort and peer counseling effort in our department.”

Basilico said he hopes these new changes will have effects stretching beyond student health.

“There are some features of economics that can be improved upon and will improve mental wellbeing and will lead to better research and better outputs for humanity.”

—Staff writer Sophia S. Armenakas can be reached at sophia.armenakas@thecrimson.com

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Tags
UHSFASSocial Sciences DivisionMental Health