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Discrimination, competitiveness, and support in US graduate student mental health

Julie Posselt (Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, USA)

Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education

ISSN: 2398-4686

Article publication date: 1 March 2021

Issue publication date: 2 August 2021




Rising rates of anxiety and depression and the varied costs of these conditions indicate a clear need to create learning environments in which graduate and professional students can more readily thrive. However, the absence of multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary evidence about mental health in graduate education has obscured a clear picture of which populations, contexts and social dynamics merit focused attention and resources. The purpose of this study is therefore to analyze prevalence and risk factors associated with anxiety and depression among a large sample of graduate students, with special attention to how graduate education environments and interactions may be associated with mental health.


This paper offers the first multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary analysis of depression and anxiety among US graduate and professional students. Using a sample of 20,888 students randomly sampled within 69 universities, the author compares depression and anxiety prevalence among fields of study with hierarchical cluster modeling. Then, using a conceptual framework that links social support, role strain and self-determination theories, the author estimates fixed effects multivariate logistic regressions to measure how depression and anxiety are associated with experiencing racial discrimination, support from friends and family, perceived competitiveness in one’s classes, and comfort speaking with one’s professors about mental health.


Graduate students who endure frequent racial discrimination have odds of screening positive for depression and anxiety that are 2.3 and 3.0 times higher, respectively, than those who never experience discrimination. Support from family and friends moderates these relationships and perceived competitiveness exacerbates them. LGBTQ students and students who self-report that finances are a struggle or tight also have higher odds of depression and anxiety. Students in the humanities, arts and architecture have significantly higher prevalence of depression and anxiety than the sample as a whole.


The paper offers broadest base of evidence to date about patterns that are usually experienced at the individual level or analyzed institution-by-institution and field-by-field. Specifically, the author identified social dynamics, fields of study and populations where attention to wellbeing may be especially warranted. The conceptual framework and multivariate results clarify how organizational and individual factors in graduate students’ mental health may be intertwined through competitive, discriminatory, or supportive interactions with peers, faculty, family and friends. Findings clarify a need for awareness of the contexts and interactions that graduate students experience as well as individual factors that are associated with student wellbeing.



The author gratefully acknowledges the National Academy of Education and Spencer Foundation for a 2015-2017 post-doctoral fellowship that made this research possible, as well as partnership with the Healthy Minds Network. This paper is dedicated to students and scholars everywhere who are working to make academe a more just and humane institution.


Posselt, J. (2021), "Discrimination, competitiveness, and support in US graduate student mental health", Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, Vol. 12 No. 1, pp. 89-112.



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