Re-envisioning Mental Health at Duke University

 September 7, 2016


We all have a friend who for much of their PhD student career couldn't shake the feeling they'd been let in by mistake, despite many prior accomplishments. This is "impostor syndrome," the feeling of not belonging in a group because we are inadequate, which can lead to depression. A study at UC Berkeley found that depression and mental health issues were common on campus among graduate students, stemming from impostor syndrome, stresses in personal relationships, or deep anxiety, and the same is likely true at other universities.

Informed by our own experiences and research showing that mental health issues may be common among graduate students, we took the opportunity offered by the interdisciplinary team project component of the Emerging Leaders Institute (ELI) to tackle three questions. First, what mental health resource centers serve graduate students and postdocs at Duke? Second, are there novel methods of outreach that could be explored for our campus? Third, since mental health issues are very common among grad students, are they getting the help they need from campus resources?

We reached out to several campus mental health providers and ultimately interviewed four: Dr. Gary Glass at Duke CAPS, Dr. Zachary Rosenthal at Duke Psychiatry and Behavioral Services (DPBS), Dr. Christine Pesetski at DukeReach, and Sheila Broderick, LCSW, at the Duke Women’s Center. We asked them about challenges and opportunities in mental health for grad students and postdocs, and offered some novel outreach ideas that came from our own brainstorming, like online moderated group forums or chat rooms.

What forms of novel outreach is Duke already using? Dr. Glass noted that some universities are already using online forums, and that while there are some concerns about security and cost, he expects this method to expand to Duke within three to five years. Both CAPS and the Women’s Center have initiated some informal training for students who want to create a supportive peer network, with some success—though our CAPS interviewee also noted the usefulness of a framework to guide peer-to-peer efforts, and the need for more training with individual students so that they can facilitate productive group discussions.

One perspective we heard, but did not anticipate, was a suggestion for a new “community mental health” model—a model in which we “treat the water, not the fish,” in the words of Dr. Glass. Glass argued that modern culture erodes students’ ability to express vulnerability, encourages us to push aside “the other” in our pursuit of power, knowledge and status, and emphasizes control and quantification over trust and nuance.

Exploring further the role that environment plays on an individual's mental health, Dr. Rosenthal identified structural barriers beyond individual awareness as a strong influence on students’ mental wellbeing. Those barriers potentially include interactions between mentors/professors and students as well as the amount of care and attention shown from department administrators toward students.

Additionally, throughout our interview process we were surprised to learn of  Duke’s decentralized organization and the great challenges it presents for some ideas that seem relatively straightforward—for instance, putting up bathroom stickers to improve the visibility of the women’s center and its resources for students suffering from gender-related violence.

The potential for mental health issues on a campus is high, and especially salient at institutions like Duke that attract high-performing individuals who often feel great pressure to perform. Duke already has many of the building blocks—expertise, resources, and desire—to lead the way for other campuses in creating a positive, proactive community mental health model. Our team shared a full report summarizing our conversations with campus mental health providers and some campus policymakers, as well with our ELI colleagues. We hope that our report helps administrators and providers to come together and continue to build toward that cohesive vision.


Kristen N. Collar, M.S.

Ph.D. candidate, Physics

Kristen Collar is a Ph.D. candidate in the Physics Department at Duke. She is working in the Electrical Engineering Department on surface and interface physics, within III-V semiconductor systems, with an emphasis on the role that they play in determining the electrical properties of a material. She completed her Masters in Electrical Engineering last Fall.


Lanhe (Starling) Shan
Starling (Lanhe) Shan, M.S.

Recent graduate, Global Health

Starling Shan graduated in May 2016 with a master of science in global health. Her thesis focused on understanding patient care-seeking behavior and market niche for innovative healthcare models. She is interested in policy and project strategies for effective international development work.


Rob Fetter

Ph.D. Candidate, Environmental Policy

Rob Fetter is a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Policy at Duke. He studies regulation and technological innovation in the energy sector, with particular interests in energy poverty, technology “leapfrogging” opportunities for energy systems in emerging economies, and hydraulic fracturing for shale gas.


Zhihui Cheng

Ph.D. Student, Electrical and Computer Engineering

Zhihui Cheng is a 3rd year Ph.D Student in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke University. He is now exploring novel nanomaterials for future electronic applications. Besides research, Zhihui is passionate about science communication, leadership, and community service.