Depression is one of the top mental health concerns among biology graduate students and has contributed to the “graduate student mental health crisis” declared in 2018. Several prominent science outlets have called for interventions to improve graduate student mental health, yet it is unclear to what extent graduate students with depression discuss their mental health with others in their Ph.D. programs. While sharing one’s depression may be an integral step to seeking mental health support during graduate school, depression is considered to be a concealable stigmatized identity (CSI) and revealing one’s depression could result in loss of status or discrimination. As such, face negotiation theory, which describes a set of communicative behaviors that individuals use to regulate their social dignity, may help identify what factors influence graduate students’ decisions about whether to reveal their depression in graduate school. In this study, we interviewed 50 Ph.D. students with depression enrolled across 28 life sciences graduate programs across the United States. We examined (1) to what extent graduate students revealed their depression to faculty advisors, graduate students, and undergraduates in their research lab, (2) the reasons why they revealed or concealed their depression, and (3) the consequences and benefits they perceive are associated with revealing depression. We used a hybrid approach of deductive and inductive coding to analyze our data.
More than half (58%) of Ph.D. students revealed their depression to at least one faculty advisor, while 74% revealed to at least one graduate student. However, only 37% of graduate students revealed their depression to at least one undergraduate researcher. Graduate students’ decisions to reveal their depression to their peers were driven by positive mutual relationships, while their decisions to reveal to faculty were often based on maintaining dignity by performing preventative or corrective facework. Conversely, graduates performed supportive facework when interacting with undergraduate researchers by revealing their depression as a way to destigmatize struggling with mental health.
Life sciences graduate students most commonly revealed their depression to other graduate students, and over half reported discussing depression with their faculty advisor. However, graduate students were reluctant to share their depression with undergraduate researchers. Power dynamics between graduate students and their advisors, their peers, and their undergraduate mentees influenced the reasons they chose to reveal or conceal their depression in each situation. This study provides insights into how to create more inclusive life science graduate programs where students can feel more comfortable discussing their mental health.