The dark cloud of academia

A recent study from a research group at Flanders University in Belgium claim that one in three PhD students are at risk of a common psychiatric disorder such as depression or anxiety, a much higher prevalence than any other similarly educated populations.

This is a striking statistic but not an overly surprising one. Being a PhD student is extremely stressful.

The pay isn’t great, the working hours aren’t set and can be long and draining, you’re in a fast moving field and constantly under pressure to deliver novel results to an audience that may have different ideas to your own. You’re never quite sure when you will reach the finish line. And when you do submit and defend your thesis, worry that it will be largely ignored and fast become insignificant.

The most commonly reported symptoms in the study included unhappiness, depressive thoughts, lack of sleep due to worry, not being able to overcome difficulties or enjoy day-to-day activities and feeling under consistent strain.

The authors identified several factors which can negatively affect the students mental state: work-family conflict, unrealistic demands and work overload, supervisors leadership style, team decision-making culture and perception of a career out-with academia.  Contrastingly, a clear vision of future career path seemed to positively impact mental state, giving meaningfulness and a feeling of control as well as a good relationship with supervisors.

Such issues have been presumed and observed for a long time, but this journal paper among other emerging studies, highlights the problem and gives the hard data to underscore presumptions. It is hoped that in light of data and statistics like this, the issue will be taken more seriously and more can be done by those in the system to spot students who are potentially struggling and be equipped with the knowledge to refer them for additional support they need during their PhD journey.

The paper also generated conversation on Twitter, and aimed to break the silence and address the stigma surrounding mental health issues in academia. ‘[I]t 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,’ the authors wrote. This can lead to feelings of isolation, causing further deterioration in mental health. Of course this applies not just to mental illness in PhD students, but in the general population. Campaigns such as  SeeMe’s ‘it’s okay..’ aim to tackle the same issues of talking about our mental health and eliminating stigma.

There are many reasons for pursuing a PhD and there is no doubt it can be exhilarating and incredibly rewarding, but this potentially huge psychological cost should be addressed more seriously and comprehensively to continue to tackle mental health issues among PhD students.

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