Open letter about mental health at Vanderbilt
A few weeks ago, some student organizers in the biomed programs called a meeting to discuss the ongoing mental health crisis in the Vanderbilt biomedical sciences PhD programs. The 47 attendees resolved to write an open letter asking for specific changes to help resolve this crisis.

Please consider reading and signing this letter as well as sharing it with your classmates.
(Signatures will not be shared unless we reach a minimum of 75. Signatures will be displayed alphabetically, not in order of who signed.)
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To BRET-affiliated faculty,
Recently, there have been many conversations revolving around the mental health of biomedical science graduate students in response to an article describing student suicides in our program. We as students wanted to make our voices heard and share our perspective on our mental health. Below is our effort to collect and share the struggles that graduate students in the biomedical sciences programs have experienced as well as a few suggestions for what faculty and administrators can do to help resolve the crisis of graduate student mental health.

In response to mental health concerns amongst us, the administration has attempted to increase UCC care for our program specifically. Unfortunately, this care is still inadequate. Many students have experienced multiple month-long waits to be seen by a counselor, and for many that care has only been temporary to accommodate the growing demand UCC counselors experience. Students have been pressured to attend less frequently or not at all by counselors who are taking on an exorbitant workload. Psychiatric services are also severely understaffed as students have reported wait times of 6 to 8 months. Additionally, UCC services seem to be viewed as a catch-all for the mental health needs of students, but current staffing at UCC leaves them unable to care for students with less common mental health needs. It is evident that more care is desperately needed. Reflect that many biomed students lost at least one peer at some point at Vanderbilt, as shown in the TN lookout article (Motycka 2022). In short, students must have free, readily accessible and long term care available.

When asked to identify the greatest impact on their mental health, many students cite the stress that comes from excessive work expectations in their lab (see testimonials below). Many labs have reasonable work expectations and we understand that the work load of this career is often greater than others. However, many students report a requirement or pressure from their PI to work far beyond the standard 40 hour work week. The lack of time to rest and take care of personal needs leaves students burned out and stressed, and ultimately unable to perform effectively, leading to further stress. While research often requires unusual work hours, we find it reasonable and necessary to be given the opportunity to recover when it does and ask to be given space to make reasonable accommodations for rest.

The other largest source of stress on Vanderbilt graduate students is financial. In Nashville, inflation rose to an all-time high of 7% (BLS CPI), along with rental prices (now up 20% according to apartment list). The 3% stipend increase received immediately following a student petition asking for a wage increase was inadequate to cover inflation and has left graduate students more financially precarious than last year. Because graduate students make only just above a living wage in Nashville ($31,200 in 2021, before the spike in inflation and rent), we are uniquely vulnerable to a sudden loss of purchasing power or rent increases. This has led to mounting financial struggles for students as pay increases are often unpredictable and inadequate. We have watched our grocery bills rise faster than our wages. Many of us are priced out of our homes and are forced to move. We move further from campus for cheaper housing and watch the cost of our commutes rise with gas prices. This is detrimental to our health and wellness.

Another stressor to graduate students is a lack of vision and dental care. The “access” we have is to insurance that costs about as much as it covers. As a result, many students are going without proper dental and vision care. This is unacceptable and yet another source of stress. Without being provided these insurances, we are unable to feel comfortable that we can be well cared for in the event of emergencies, and may be forced to take on extensive medical debt as a result.

It has been stated that the administration here at Vanderbilt  “strive to foster a culture of openness through brave dialogue and honest self-reflection by investing in the mental health and wholeness of every member of the Vanderbilt family.” This letter is us reaching out to create that dialogue and no longer be spoken on behalf of. We as graduate students depend on Vanderbilt to invest in us as we are investing ourselves in Vanderbilt. In order to do so, our stipends need to reflect a livable wage in our city, we need to be allowed to work a reasonable schedule, the cost of dental and vision insurance need to be covered, and we need to be guaranteed timely and unrestricted access to UCC care.

Signatures below.
I am a professor/PI to grad students, how can I help?
We have come to realize that the lack of transparency we experience as graduate students at Vanderbilt is also experienced by faculty in many cases. As such, we have provided a list of ways in which faculty members who directly mentor students can improve the well-being of students in their lab.

Many grants allow unrestricted funds to go towards stipend increases and insurance costs. If you have such funds available, you can:
o   Let your grad student pick out a dental and vision plan and give them written confirmation (a simple email works) saying you can cover the cost. This will let students be reimbursed for their dental and vision care through the BRET office
o   Adjust student stipends to cover current inflation. The FY22 raises should’ve been $2275 to keep pace with inflation. Raising stipends by another $1275 right now would help us retain our spending power.
o   Attend trainings on management, communication and mental health consistently offered by UCC.
o  Make a promise to match our stipends with inflation year after year. Doing so would help lower future uncertainty. So far inflation is at 7% this year. To keep our spending power (32.5K in 2020), our stipend for FY23 needs to be $37,375, not the currently planned $35,000. Inflation may change, keep tabs on it here. (
o   Check in with your student regularly. Allow for feedback from them on what management style best suits them and how you can most effectively communicate with each other.
o   Keep an open dialogue with your grad students regarding administrative decisions. Many faculty members were surprised to learn we don’t receive dental/vision insurance. This raises questions of transparency. Checking in with your grad students will keep you in the loop about what’s going on.
o   Make it clear that you don’t expect students to come in on weekends or holidays, unless it is necessary. If students must come in during those times, consider talking with them to see how you can reduce their workload. Teach your students how to plan their work in advance to schedule in appropriate breaks. It is important for all of us to have time to rest, now more than ever.
Full Name *
Email *
If you are signing in solidarity with graduate students in biomedical sciences but are not one yourself, what is your relationship to the program? (faculty, alumnus/a, family of a student, etc.)
Aaron Gochman
Adam Quay
Adam X Miranda
Adriana Norris
Alan Cherrington
Alan Hurtado
Alessandra Nicoletta Cruz Yu
Alex Korsunsky
Alexandra Mulligan
Alexis Guenther
Alexis Jameson
Alyssa Scartozzi
Amelia Cephas
Ashley Cavnar
Avery Bogart
Azuah Gonzalez
Benjamin A. Perlin
Bhumi Singh
Bill Smith
Blake Baleami
Blythe Hospelhorn
Brian Ferrer
Cameron Sheehy
Carl Stone
Cato Milder
Claire Scott
Daniel Sack
Danielle Adank
David Gonzalez
Dorothy Jarchow
Elizabeth Semler
Emelina Vienneau
Erin Bratu
Fangcheng Yuan
Geena Ildefonso
Geoffrey Hervey
Greg Berumen
Gustavo Araiza
Hannah Kate Bryner
Hannah Waterman
Jacky Lu
Jacob Fogel
Jade Miller
Jaime Sorenson
James Hayes
James White
Jared Phillips
Jarrod Eisma
Jonah Zarrow
Jonathan D. Brown
Jordyn Sanner
Joseph Benthal
Kaela S. Singleton, PhD
Kaitlyn Gallagher
Kaitlyn Schaaf
Katrina Rbeiz
KeAndreya Morrison
Keisha Hardeman
Kevin McCarty
Kianna Robinson
Kyle Riedmann
kyra smart
L. Anne Walker
Lauren Dock
Lauren Kasper
Lauren Schnitkey
Layla Aref
Lea Davis
Lili Liu
Lillian Brady
Lin Ammar
Lindsay Breidenbach
Luis Martinez
Manuel A. Giannoni Guzman
Margret Fye
Maria Luísa Jabbur
Mary Kate Macedonia
Mary Lee
Maxwell Hamilton
MD Imam Uddin
Megan Stanchfield
Melanie Dillon
Michael Reynolds
Miguel Moravec
Mina Shedd
Nancy Mack
Natalie Warsinger-Pepe
Nathan Winters
Nikki Rodgers
Noah Bradley
Olivia Cox
Piilani Noguchi
Pranoti Pradhan
Rachana Nitin
Raymond Blind
Remington Hoerr
Ritika Raghavan
Ruben Martinez Barricarte
Ryan Dalforno
Ryan Fansler
Samantha Schaffner
Samuel John Dunham
Sara Ramirez
Sarah Guagliardo
Sarah Harmych
Sarah Spence
Scout Allendorf
Shannon Taylor
Spring Chhom
stephanie medina
Stephanie Pearlman
Sudiksha Rathan Kumar
Tyler Hansen
Vincent Yao
Ximena Leon
Zachary Sanchez
Zoey Bryant
“I’ve often felt like the work I do in the lab is unappreciated. My PI is quick to criticize and ask for more without acknowledging the work I’ve done or making me feel valuable in the lab. I know my experience is not unique to me, or to labs at Vanderbilt, but rather a fault of academia as a whole. We have the opportunity to change this at Vanderbilt, and it’s imperative that we do. At this point, it’s literally become a matter of life and death.”

“...As my limited number of sessions with the UCC continued, I was further told that my issues extended beyond what the UCC could help me with for my mental health issues. The UCC made it clear that I could not come to their office for help because they cannot help me. I did not find the experience beneficial, especially since everyone touts the UCC as a resource students can use. But I cannot use it. Several of my classmates have had similar interactions with the UCC. So what are we supposed to do? Having the UCC used as one of the only resources or solutions to the mental health crisis makes me feel even more isolated and left behind than I already do. Additionally, if the UCC really is unequipped to help some of the student population with their mental health, they should not be used as a scapegoat for the underlying causes of the mental health crisis on our campus caused by cultural issues… To be honest, I do not feel supported by the Vandy biomed community. I am glad there is a focus on graduate student mental health, as I think this should be something that is addressed and discussed more. However, it points the finger at students like we are the problem when there are cultural issues not being addressed contributing to the deterioration of our mental health… Sink-or-swim style of training is a commonly employed method of teaching across courses and programs. This comes with a culture that we are expected to know things we might not know yet before we get here, such as effectively looking up information, reading literature, writing practices, networking, etc., which can further increases imposter syndrome and chips away at mental health… My PI is very supportive and sees me as an individual person who has strengths and limitations. I picked an advisor who is compatible with me personality-wise and mentoring-style-wise, so we are a good match in that regard, which helps me feel supported and helps our relationship. He celebrates my strengths and is patient with me when things are delayed as a result of things I’m struggling with or weaknesses… As a disabled student in a for-profit health care system, I struggle to feed myself and pay my rent. I go without a lot of the medical care I need, including mental health services outside of Vandy (since the UCC is not an accessible resource for me). Assistance programs don’t supplement enough of this, so I still don’t have what I need medically, mentally, and nutritionally. All of these things affect my mental health and physical health, which extends to affecting my performance in the program. As my performance drops, so does my mental health. I’m too scared to go to the BRET office for financial assistance after the change in administration, which I’ve heard financial assistance is available, because I’m afraid that will put a target on my back for getting kicked out of the program as my performance declines. Each year we get a pay cut because the COL raise does not keep up with inflation, especially for rising medical costs…”

“Despite the considerable challenges we have faced in the past two years, I have found Vanderbilt to be supportive and accommodating. After talking with students at other universities, I started graduate school with expectations of 60+ hour work weeks, strenuous coursework, and constant burnout. Since I have dealt with mental health issues in the past, I was worried that the grad school environment would be hard for me - but I have not experienced this here. In classes, most professors have been flexible with grading and deadlines so that we can focus on research. Working hours have been largely determined by my own progress and efficiency; sometimes the workload does feel overwhelming, but I've found faculty and peers to be supportive during these times.”

“It takes over 6 months to get diagnosed with ADHD through the UCC--even if you've already been diagnosed earlier. The UCC was not up front with me about how long it would take to receive care, so I didn't think to reach out for community care either. They also ask really personal questions. The UCC said they'd need to get in contact with my parents to give me a diagnosis. I am an adult and I am estranged from my parents, so this requirement is wholly unacceptable. Overall, this greatly delayed how long it took for me to get care. I'm finally being treated now, and treatment is making a large difference. It hurts knowing that I struggled for months without being treated just because the UCC wasn't up front with me on how long the wait list really is. Also if the wait lists are that long, no one's psychiatric needs are close to being met.”

“I would have been the fifth student to lose their life to the crisis happening on our campus if I did not have a pet that relies on me to take care of them. This would have happened after the changes made mentioned in the administration's email. I am in a supportive lab with an extremely supportive advisor, but they are not perfect, as nothing and no one can ever achieve perfection. Our labs cannot do all of the work when there is a culture in the biomed community and programs that are a root cause for the issues surrounding the deterioration of the mental health of our graduate students. Students exchanging memes around suicidal ideation and how different situations in grad school are driving us to those feelings have become very common interactions for me… Change needs to start somewhere, and I do not want to see more of my classmates lose their lives when there are meaningful changes and solutions the biomed community and programs can implement to reduce the likelihood of this happening again.”

“I feel like I was gaslit into this entire thing. Ph.D. is advertised like it's the right thing to do if you want to be a "real" scientist. And then, once you're accepted, fresh outta undergrad for many, they try their best to affirm your decision while making it clear that there is an agenda to be followed in order for a debt to be paid. The sword of damacles looms... And sometimes you just want it to fall. There is no transparency about what you are stepping into, and if you happen to be a first generation grad student you might not understand why people even get Ph.D.s other than to prove they are smart or "run a lab"... The immense burden of responsibility foisted upon young graduate students only grows as financial inequity inflates across the globe, and tenure track positions become ever more sparse. The joke is often made that grad students are like indentured servants... Not so funny now that it feels truer than ever… It starts with admitting what the academic establishment has become... An industry in and of itself, and we're the product. That's why I consider leaving with my master's more seriously every day. Do I really want to spend another 3 to 4 years of my life living paycheck to paycheck, just to feed the beast anyway? You tell me.”

“I’m a former student of the Vanderbilt Biomedical program… In the time that I’ve been out of graduate school at Vanderbilt, my mental health has improved exponentially. I have also been reached out to by other people in the program about my experience leaving graduate school and if they should do it as well. If the Vanderbilt biomedical programs can’t get their act together, I think it’s inevitable that they will lose a lot of amazing talent. If Vanderbilt wants top-tier researchers, they need to support those researchers.”

“...However, all of those feelings of community (in person lab meetings, holiday parties, happy hours, etc.) have also disintegrated the past two years due to the same University guidelines. At this point, my lab culture and friend groups have fallen apart, and I feel like I am walking through the Ph.D. process on my own, which should never be the case for any graduate student. For this reason, I have considered dropping out/mastering out multiple times, or even completely changing career paths in order to escape the experience and find a job and environment that will improve my mental health, not hinder it..”

“UCC has always been unusable to me, I always needed services that they couldn't, or wouldn't, provide. They go out of their way to prescribe stimulants, unless you can jump through the series of hoops necessary to prove that you need them, and thus prove you do not need them so badly. The vandy biomed community has worsened my mental health via failure to consistently provide accommodations across all classes. Some professors are much better than others, but the process would be so much easier if people learned about EAD services during orientation and knew how they could become a notetaker. People in labs are supportive and friendly, but still very spread out and focused on their own work limiting opportunities to socialize The most important thing the BRET office could do to support graduate student mental health is to pay a wage that matches the price of this area and reflects a fair $15 per hour minimum wage for the more realistic estimate of 60 hours per week worked, or $46,800 per year. In addition, they should not expect productive schoolwork unless they cover vision insurance, community mental health providers to do the essential services that UCC does not provide.”

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