How to encourage student self-care

How to encourage student self-care

Between taking classes, teaching classes, working at clinical placements, handling research assistantships, writing theses or dissertations, and juggling family responsibilities, psychology graduate students are under a mound of pressure. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased that stress for most (see June Monitor).

Yet graduate programs don’t usually teach their students how to make time for self-care, despite evidence that self-care behaviors make for happier, healthier trainees. A meta-analysis of 17 studies led by Joshua K. Swift, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Idaho State University, found that self-care behaviors were linked with increased self-compassion and life satisfaction and decreased psychological distress among grad students in professional psychology (Training and Education in Professional Psychology, Vol. 10, No. 4, 2016). And a survey of 358 psychology doctoral students led by Evan Zahniser, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in neuropsychology at the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System, found that higher levels of self-care were associated with better self-reported progress in respondents’ graduate programs (Training and Educational in Professional Psychology, Vol. 11, No. 4, 2017).

Fortunately, encouraging self-care need not be a stressful project. Faculty and recent graduate students say that simple changes can make a big impact. Here is their advice for encouraging students to take care of themselves:

Know the stressors and barriers. Financial stressors and time pressures repeatedly top the list of challenges that psychology graduate students face. In a 2012 APA survey, 68% of respondents reported that academic pressures were a significant challenge, and 64% cited finances or debt among their significant stressors. These stressors also stand in the way of stress relief, the research found, with 47% of respondents saying that money was a barrier to self-care and more than 70% blaming lack of time.

“Increasingly, there is this pressure to really excel and stand out in all of the different aspects of one’s professional identity,” Zahniser says. Trying to fit self-care into the schedule can be very challenging.

First-generation students and those whose sexual, racial or ethnic identities are marginalized may face struggles unique from those of their peers, says Nicholas Grant, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the U.S. Navy and the president-elect of GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality. These students may lack family support or face discrimination and have feelings of not fitting into the dominant culture of a grad program.

Program culture can be a barrier to self-care, too. Karen Saules, PhD, a professor of psychology at Eastern Michigan University, remembers the wake-up call she got when her students voiced concerns over whether it was safe for them to admit they’d had fun over the weekend or gone on a vacation over a school break. “We began to get worried that there was this climate that it’s not OK to have work-life balance,” Saules says.

Check in. The first step toward combating that kind of environment is to make self-care a welcome topic of conversation. Self-care is built into the ethical codes of mental health organizations—including APA’s—but students and trainees don’t get explicit instruction on what self-care is or how to do it, says Arianne Miller, PhD, an assistant professor of counseling and school psychology at San Diego State University.

Miller brings up the topic with students with this question: “When was the last time you felt good in mind, body and spirit?” (Most, she says, report that this last happened before graduate school.) Carolyn Allard, PhD, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Alliant International University and president of APA Div. 56 (Trauma), makes sure to ask her students about their moods and physical wellness, looking for red flags that they need to take more time for themselves. Anxiety, tension, headaches, lack of empathy for others and irritability are all signs that someone’s mental health might be slipping, she says.

Any acknowledgment that graduate school is challenging can combat the stigma of stress, says Melanie Arenson, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Maryland.

“The cultural piece ends up trickling down to create a systemic kind of space to have those conversations,” Arenson says. “It puts it on faculty members’ radar, so faculty members may be more likely to check in with their students.”

Incorporate self-care in class. One danger of emphasizing self-care is that it can become one more task on a seemingly endless to-do list. To avoid that, incorporate self-care into coursework that students are already doing, suggests Robyn Gobin, PhD, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “During class time, they’re invested in learning, they’re invested in getting good grades,” Gobin says. “So, I make it part of their grade.”

Gobin asks her students to fill out a self-care assessment and identify areas where they can improve their self-care. Miller incorporates self-care lessons into her clinical classes when discussing self-reflection. She also encourages self-care through extra-credit assignments such as asking students to reflect on their own self-care practices.

Encourage small steps. Another key strategy is to encourage students to start small. “If you Google self-care, it’s like a picture of Oprah in a bathtub with bubbles and champagne,” Miller says. “But self-care is just very basic, small things: Going to bed a little bit earlier. Going to the dentist. Spending time with friends. Experiencing joy and having fun.”

Encourage students not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Graduate students are usually high achievers who want to excel at whatever they’re doing, even self-care. It’s impor­tant to encourage students not to be perfectionists about taking care of themselves, she says: “My logic is that 15 minutes is better than zero minutes.”

Gobin encourages her students to pick one domain, such as social, physical or mental, and work on self-care in just that one area for a semester. “That makes it much more manageable, identifying one act of self-care they can consistently pursue,” she says.

Part of helping students identify small steps they can make involves identifying how self-care fits into their values systems, Grant says. Focusing on what a student most wants to get out of self-care—an energy boost? A mental break?—can help them identify activities that will get them what they need.

Sponsor a wellness committee. After Saules and her colleagues noticed that their program’s graduate students were afraid to admit to enjoying weekends, they launched a graduate student wellness committee to work on changing the culture.

The committee is student run, usually by first-year students, who typically have more time than more senior students, and meets twice a month for an hour, Saules says. The group plans inexpensive camaraderie-building activities, such as hiking or kayaking, and arranges a weekend writing retreat for students to stay for around $15 a night. The committee sends care packages to students on internship (faculty pays postage) and tracks students’ milestones, such as passing qualifying exams, and acknowledges that progress with a note. The group also arranges lunchtime seminars where faculty or older students lead discussions on such topics as writing a thesis or the pros and cons of having children during graduate school versus after.

Model self-care. The most important way to encourage self-care is to take care of yourself—and let your students know you’re doing it.

When Allard asks her students to self-reflect and check in about self-care, she’ll join the discussion alongside them. When Grant talks to students, he talks about his running and how he fits it into his schedule.

It’s also crucial to model boundaries for students, Gobin says. Let them know that you don’t check email late at night or on weekends, for example, and encourage them to take those breaks from work as well. If working at odd hours is productive for you, communicate to students that they don’t need to respond to your emails as they arrive, but rather at a time they are working.

“The kind of culture where people are encouraged to set some boundaries is important, whatever those boundaries are,” Zahniser says.

Of course, faculty are under a great deal of pressure, too, and they may feel that their own self-care practice leaves something to be desired. That doesn’t make it any less important to make the effort and share strategies with students, Miller says.

“Modeling the imperfection is just as important,” she says, “if not more important.”