By Jane Kokernak
In her October 29th workshop on wellbeing for Khoury College graduate students, Dr. Kristen Lee validated the duality inherent in the graduate school experience: it is a time of both tremendous opportunity and tremendous stress. “There are two narratives,” she explained in an interview before the event, one in which a person feels accomplished, with notable strengths, and another in which the same person experiences “angst and impostor syndrome worry.”
Dr. Lee, Lead Faculty for Behavioral Science and Leadership, specializes in working with high-achieving individuals. Known familiarly to her colleagues and students as “Dr. Kris,” her research focus grew out of her observations of individuals in her practice. “The risks are high because the demands are high,” she told an attentive audience.
“At Khoury, we’re always looking at ways to support our students through the course of their program.”
—Kim Gubelman, Assistant Director of Graduate Student Services
The idea for Dr. Kris’s workshop began with Kim Gubelman, assistant director of Graduate Student Services at Khoury College, who said, “Students often share with me the different stressors that impact their academic life.” She realized that she could do more than one-on-one advising. Explained Gubelman, “At Khoury, we’re always looking at ways to support our students through the course of their program. We realized that there is an opportunity to teach them the importance of having and maintaining self-care.”
After she shared statistics on the global mental health situation, Dr. Kris pivoted to the workshop’s purpose: “How do I show up for my life and activities without burnout, while still guarding my mental health?”
Unlearning Four Mental Health Myths
Supervised skill practice, based on psychoeducation, the application of brain and behavior science, is a remedy. Dr. Kris emphasized, “To learn new strategies, we must unlearn” long-held habits and beliefs. Impassioned and caring, she itemized four damaging myths.
People are commodities. In this belief, people are valued for their productivity, and expectations are high. “We are encouraged to feel that what we do is never enough.”
The mental health crisis affects only undergraduate students. There is a “heightened state in graduate studies” in part because of the cognitive strain and the belief that, having reached adulthood, a graduate student can cope with any difficulties on their own.
Mental health issues are obvious. An individual’s self-presentation is supposed to communicate the inner self: if they look happy, they are happy. “We don’t always see the immense suffering behind a screen of curated images,” Dr. Kris explained.
Mental health issues are shameful and should be kept secret. Mental health and physical health are equally important, insisted Dr. Kris. A stigma around mental health issues is “an impediment to getting help,” she said.
This deconstruction of myths prompted audience questions: How can a grad student communicate safely with others about these concerns? What about cultural biases around mental health? Dr. Kris engaged specifically with each question before returning to her general claim: “There is a public unlearning process; it takes time.”
In her research, she focuses on identifying and testing strategies that move individuals from a “Performance/Me” mindset to a “Purpose/We” one. These are associated with necessary steps: moving from over-sensitivity to mistakes to curiosity and risk tolerance, from the need for admiration to a sense of belonging, and from perfectionism to learning and growth. Community, and what Dr. Kris calls “collective efficacy,” a theory she pioneered from her research, is key. She illustrates it simply: “You do well; I do well.”
Dealing with Stress, Learning Self-care
Throughout the workshop, Dr. Kris punctuated her remarks with questions to prompt self-reflection and conversation with people sitting nearby. In one, she asked her audience to consider, “What are some ways you actively resist imposter syndrome and perfectionism?”
Near the workshop’s conclusion, reminding the audience that the “unlearning piece is deep,” Dr. Lee offered several practices that are consistent with developing what she calls a protective mindset:
For the audience, the workshop seemed like a beginning. Recognizing they had only begun to explore new directions for improved well-being, Dr. Kris shared a pamphlet with many additional resources. Some are at Northeastern:
University Health and Counseling Services (UHCS) has counseling services for graduate students enrolled in the student health plan or have paid the fee. UHCS also operates Find@Northeastern, a new mental health service that offers a 24/7 hotline with immediate support from a skilled clinician, five free counseling sessions each fall and spring semester, and personal follow-ups.
We Care, operated by Student Life, is an extended network of services that provides support during disruptive times.
Active Minds, a national organization with an NU chapter, is a student-run group that supports mental health awareness and education for students.
SAIL includes campus opportunities within “well-being,” one of the framework’s five dimensions.
In a talk enlivened by Dr. Kris’s ample knowledge and love for her work, a palpable sense of her compassion also made the event affirming. Encouraging her audience to move in the direction of a strengths-based rather than deficit-based model, she advised, “We’re doing so, so much great work. That should be celebrated.”
To learn more about Dr. Kris’s work on global and campus mental health, go to her site, Dr. Kris, watch her TEDx talk, The Risk You Must Take, connect on social media @TheRealDrKris, and learn from her new video on self-care.