Winter 2021 Student Perspective

19 Mar 2021 11:58 AM | Jessica Hamilton (Administrator)
  • A Student Perspective on Promoting Mental Health for Clinical Psychology Graduate Students Historically Excluded from Institutions of Higher Education 

    Alyssa R. Palmer, MA,
    University of Minnesota

    I am a fifth-year graduate student in the Developmental Psychopathology and Clinical Science program at the University of Minnesota. I am also White, from a low-income background, and the first member of my family to go to college. In fact, my father did not graduate from high school and my mother - pregnant with me -  graduated only to fulfill her mother’s dying wish that her daughter would earn a high school diploma. My demographic background and life experiences make it fairly improbable that I would have made it to a top tier clinical psychology Ph.D. program. As of 2015 only about 20% of Pell-Grant recipients going to public four-year institutions received a bachelor’s degree in four years, and only 40% did so in six years (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2016). Due to systemic racism, these prospects are even less likely for students of color, with one study reporting that 38% of Black students who entered a college or university in 2010 completed degrees in six years (Shapiro et al., 2017). However, too often the conversation about successful outcomes stops there because student’s that have earned bachelor’s degrees are viewed as the ones who have “made it”. Generally, I have found that the health and social costs that under-represented students pay to reach their academic and career goals are not acknowledged.

    Psychology graduate students are suffering from a mental health crisis (e.g. Rummell, 2015). Much of this crisis has been related to students’ experience of increased stress, lack of financial resources, and feeling a lack of belongingness in their programs. I would argue that all of these experiences, while valid across all graduate students, are even more pronounced among students who have been historically excluded from institutions of higher education. Underrepresented students often experience even higher levels of financial strain due to a lack of familial financial support and at times an obligation for them to provide financial support to family members. Many students are also experiencing guilt that they do not yet have substantial financial means to help their family. Additionally, it is strenuous for students to learn and navigate the cultural rules of upper-middle-class white America as well as the hidden curriculum of academia. This often results in additional social-emotional labor for students forced to learn the ins-and-outs of this new social sphere. Further, underrepresented students are experiencing multiple levels of separation from family and friends. Collectively, this often results in students feeling disconnected to their cultural heritage, practices, and community supports. Moreover, it is likely that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionally exacerbated these issues for underrepresented students (see the diversity corner article in the SSCP Winter 2020 Newsletter by Danielle McDuffie)

    Prioritizing and promoting mental health among underrepresented students should be a priority for clinical psychology programs. First and foremost, the psychology program governing board has exerted a commitment to diversity (American Psychological Association, 2017). Additionally, in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter Movement, many individual graduate programs released public statements about their commitment to diversity and fighting systemic racism. These efforts and commitment need to translate to not just recruiting diverse students but finding ways to support them in an institution that presents many challenges to student’s personal well-being.

    Below I offer my perspective on ways to promote social connection, belongingness, and ultimately mental health in the context of clinical psychology graduate education. Given my belief that institutions should play a central role in mitigating these difficulties, I make both recommendations for institutions and for students. I center these recommendations around experiences that have helped me and other students I have talked to, as well as knowledge about ways to promote mental health among individuals who have experienced adversity. I also make these recommendations with the caveat that there are many other avenues that I do not touch upon here, and not all of these recommendations will be beneficial for all students.

    Institution Recommendations

  1. Funding to assist students with the move to graduate school – there are many unexpected and very steep costs associated with relocating for school.
  2. Talk about the importance of student mental health at program orientations and in courses. Make it a value and priority of your programs. (see Zahniser et al., 2017)
  3. Clearly and prominently provide information about how to access mental health resources in your city and institution.
  4. Create emergency/crisis funding opportunities for students.
  5. Provide space and resources to promote student community building.
    a. Facilitate the creation of specific spaces for students of color and other underrepresented students to engage with each other.
  6. Hire diverse faculty. Encourage and facilitate cross-level mentorship.
  7. Provide talks and workshops for graduate students about the academic hidden curriculum (e.g., dress code, how/when to engage in scientific debate, how university funding works (and fellowships!), how the get involved with ongoing projects and network, etc.).
Clinical Student Recommendations
  1. Find and engage with a therapist
  2. Prioritize your health and wellbeing – sleep, eat well, and move your body
  3. Find and/or make community
  • Prioritize spending time on a hobby or passion that is unrelated to graduate school
  • Create a book or journal club to explore issues of diversity in psychological science or just to kick back and read/discuss a good fiction book with a group.
  • Twitter/social media
    • APA List-Serves:
    • Many schools have programs and groups to reach out to, email with, and hang out with in person. You could even start your own!
    • Great Twitter Hash-Tags to Check Out: #AcademicMentalHealth, #FirstGen, #FirstGenAcademic, #BlackinStem, #BlackintheIvory, #ILookLikeAProfessor
  • Participate in mentorship programs (as a mentor and mentee!)
    • There are fantastic formal and informal structures for promoting mentoring for students and professors who have similar experiences. I have found it extraordinarily helpful to be a mentee in these sorts of programs. As a mentor, I have also found meaning and a sense of competence from sharing all of the information I had gathered. Some programs to consider:
  1. Ronald E. McNair Program:
  2. Next-Gen Psych Scholars Program:
4.    Celebrate successes – big and small
  • Celebrations can look as simple as a “kudos-corner” email that goes around your graduate student list-serve and even real-life or zoom celebrations with drinks and food!

5. Engage in meaning making –

  • Remind yourself the reason you pursued a clinical psychology degree, and prioritize work that addresses those reasons. Dr. Devin Banks, the winner of the Outstanding Student Diversity Research Award, suggested writing this down somewhere that you can come back and look at it to stay true to your priorities (see the Winter 2020 SCCP New Letter)
6.    Develop an ethical narrative
  • I’ve recently read a book called “Moving Up without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility” by Jennifer Morten. She argues that students should spend time reflecting on their own ethical narratives. This process consists of identifying the real costs of upward mobility to the student and their community, and which things they are willing to choose to sacrifice within the context of their evolving identities and contexts. This idea allows students to have an honest story about their experiences without idealizing only the simple external and monetary indicators of success.


American Psychological Association. (2017). Multicultural guidelines: An ecological approach to context, identity, and intersectionality.

Goldrick-Rab, S., Kelchen, R., Harris, D. N., & Benson, J. (2016). Reducing income inequality in educational attainment: Experimental evidence on the impact of financial aid on college completion. American Journal of Sociology121(6), 1762-1817.

Rummell, C. M. (2015). An exploratory study of psychology graduate student workload, health, and program satisfaction. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 46(6), 391–399. doi:10.1037/pro0000056 

Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Huie, F., Wakhungu, P., Yuan, X., Nathan, A & Hwang, Y., A. (2017, April). Completing college: A national view of student attainment rates by race and ethnicity – Fall 2010 cohort. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Zahniser, E., Rupert, P. A., & Dorociak, K. E. (2017). Self-care in clinical psychology graduate training. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 11(4), 283–289.

About the Author

Alyssa Palmer is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. She studies how protective systems across multiple levels (biological, behavioral, relational, and socioecological) promote early childhood mental health in the context of poverty. Follow her on Twitter (@A_R_Palmer) and check out her website: