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Study Warns: Ph.D. Students Face Significant Mental Health Challenges

Approximately 1/3 of Ph.D. students are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder like depression, a recent study reports.

Although these results come from a small sample—3659 students at universities in Flanders, Belgium, 90% of whom were studying the sciences and social sciences—they are nonetheless an important addition to the growing literature about the prevalence of mental health issues in academia.

One key message for scientific trainees that are struggling with these types of challenges, write co-authors Katia Levecque and Frederik Anseel of Ghent University in an email to ScienceCareers, is that “you are not alone.” Beyond that, the authors encourage Ph.D. students to appreciate how important it is to take care of themselves.

“Mental health problems can develop into serious threats to one’s wellbeing and career, and can have detrimental consequences in the long-term,” they write. So, if you’re struggling, it’s important to “seek professional help or seek help in your personal environment, even if you think it’s probably a temporary thing.”

According to their survey, 51% of respondents had experienced at least two symptoms of poor mental health in recent weeks, indicating psychological distress. Moreover, 32% reported at least four symptoms, indicating a risk for common psychiatric disorders, which was more than twice the prevalence among highly educated comparison groups.

The most commonly reported symptoms included feeling under constant strain, being unhappy and depressed, losing sleep because of worry, and not being able to overcome difficulties or enjoy day-to-day activities.

The greatest predictor for experiencing mental health challenges was having difficulty taking care of family needs due to conflicting work commitments. High job demands and low job control were also associated with increased symptoms.

On the plus side, having an inspirational supervisor partially offset these risks. So did interest in an academic career, even among students who thought they had little chance of ultimately making it. Seeing a Ph.D. as good preparation for a nonacademic career and an added value for employers was also beneficial.

“When people have a clear vision of the future and the path that they are taking, this provides a sense of meaningfulness, progress and control, which should be a protective factor against mental health problems,” the authors explain.

According to Nathan Vanderford, an assistant dean for academic development at the University of Kentucky in Lexington who also studies mental health in academic trainees, “the study underscores what has long been presumed; that work conditions and career outlook plays a key role in the mental state of PhD trainees,” he writes in an email to ScienceCareers.

“Institutions, departments and PIs have long ignored the systemic mental health issues among PhD trainees,” Vanderford continues. “Data such as this should make the issues irrefutable and should, for ethical and moral reasons, force the hand of these entities to take on the responsibility of helping to provide PhD trainees with the support they need to navigate the very stressful journey of earning a PhD.”

Levecque and Anseel point out that small steps such as facilitating work-life balance or “offering PhD students clear and full information on job expectations and career prospects, both in and outside academia,” could have a significant positive impact.

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One message for PIs is that “investing in their own leadership competencies could really make a difference” for Ph.D. students, the authors add. They encourage PIs to take the issue seriously and learn how to spot signs of potential emotional distress. Gail Kinman, a professor at the University of Bedfordshire in the United Kingdom who acted as a reviewer for the paper, agrees.

“PIs should look out for students who isolate themselves, who seem anxious and withdrawn, who are not meeting deadlines. Nobody would expect a PI to be able to diagnose mental health problems but they should be able to spot changes in their students and have the knowledge required to refer them for support,” she writes in an email to Science Careers.

Although the survey is specific to Flanders, many of the characteristics of working toward a Ph.D. are similar around the globe, making the findings generalizable, the authors argue.

They hope the study, which has generated conversation on Twitter, will help break the silence around mental health issues in academia.

“It is a public secret that fear of stigma, retaliation or the expected negative impact on one’s future career often inhibits people suffering from mental health issues to make it public,” they write. This lack of visibility is problematic because feeling isolated can cause students’ mental health to deteriorate even further. It also means that there is less pressure on institutions and people in power to tackle the issue.

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Rather than demonizing academia, action should be taken, the authors emphasize. As academics, “we have had our share of struggles and challenges to overcome, but still think this is one of the most rewarding and meaningful careers one can have. So, if there’s a problem, let’s do something about it and make this a great place to work again. For everyone.”

Originally written by Elisabeth Pain and published on Science Mag
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