Graduate students champion mental health

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened an already growing mental health crisis in universities in the U.S. and around the world. Isolation and social distancing, academic changes, societal stressors, and many other factors are to blame.

While graduate student Boilermakers are living this reality, they are also on the front lines working toward a healthier future. Meredith Bucher, a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology, Dalia AboAlsafa, a graduate student in Public Health, and Keisha Novak, a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology, are pursuing bold solutions to the mental health crisis.

Dalia AboAlsafa’s work combats stigma around mental illness. Before coming to Purdue, AboAlsafa promoted mental health in Egypt by starting the “Speak Up” campaign to encourage patients to be vocal about their medical needs. She also worked as Egypt’s Awareness Campaigns Coordinator at the General Secretariat of Mental Health and Addiction Treatment.

 Today, her research at Purdue continues to serve and understand people experiencing mental illness around the world. She is conducting research with Nipula Guaranata, Assistant Professor of Public Health, to understand the effects of stigma against populations of people with HIV and mental illness in Tanzania.

There is also work to be done in our own lives and communities. AboAlsafa’s message to fellow graduate students is this: “The first step is to believe that mental illness is like any other disorder that can be treated, and to believe in the right of a person with mental illness to live a normal life. Seeking help, support, and socializing are always beneficial. There is always hope.”

AboAlsafa, Dalia


Dalia AboAlsafa, graduate student in Public Health







This determination to bring hope to those experiencing mental illness is also what drives Keisha Novak as she works in the lab of Dan Foti, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology and Neuroscience, to understand psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, that undermine the patient’s ability to function in daily life.

Novak uses EEG and fMRI technologies to identify symptoms of high risk for developing psychotic disorders. Novak’s research includes healthy individuals, those with disorders, and those at risk, to provide the clearest possible picture of what risk may look like.

“My ultimate goal is to be able to identify a ‘fingerprint’ of risk before individuals ever get sick,” said Novak. “This is important so that we may implement preventative care measures and develop treatment modalities to buffer the serious and lifelong cognitive and functioning consequences of psychosis.”

To graduate students experiencing negative emotions or inhibiting thoughts, Novak suggests setting daily time for self-care, being mindful about necessary daily tasks such as eating, and exploring therapy.

“Can you imagine how things would be different if painful experiences were still very painful, but not all consuming? Or, if it were possible to have an unpleasant thought and allow it to purely exist instead of feeling that the thought defines who you are?” she said. “If implemented in an effective way, therapy allows you to learn about your experiences on a deeper level, understand what they mean to you, and acquire tools that can be super empowering.”



Keisha Novak, doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology, demonstrates EEG technology that measures electrical voltage at the scalp







Another realm in which pursuit of knowledge will be the next giant leap toward change is in understanding how personality affects mental health. Meredith Bucher is researching this in the lab of Doug Samuel, Associate Professor of Psychological Sciences. Her end goal is to provide more excellent treatment to those who need it and reduce the chances that illness will recur. 

Bucher’s research aims to answer questions about how to accurately assess personality, how to involve the patient in their own care, and how to utilize personality assessments to best help patients. Bucher is also on the frontlines, helping local individuals safeguard their mental health by directly giving assessments and therapy.

From her knowledge and experience, Bucher advises graduate students, and anyone seeking greater mental health, to grow support systems of people you trust, reach out to a loved one or professional for help whenever you need it, and practice self-compassion: there is nothing “wrong” with you for experiencing emotions such as anxiety or grief.

“As graduate students, we have a lot on our plates. When we feel like something needs to be pushed aside, it’s usually our self-care,” said Bucher. “We often see general distress decrease pretty quickly once individuals start treatment, which I think is really promising.”  



Meredith Bucher, doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology






If you have questions or concerns about mental health, or desire to seek help, please know there are resources available to assist you. See the list here in the section “How is Purdue supporting the mental health of graduate students?”


Writer: Beth Ferrier,

September 25, 2020

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