PhD Students & World Mental Health Day


It's World Mental Health Day, and upon perusing some extremely inspiring posts on the subject of mental health on Instagram, I decided to address something near and dear to my heart.

It's no secret to anyone that my experience in graduate school was not all sunshine & roses. Graduate school for me was a mental and emotional ringer. One that landed me in a counselor's office at the end of my first semester, not even 6 months into my program. But what's important to realize is that my experience isn't isolated.

A number of groups over the years have reported that occupational stress is high among academics (here), particularly younger academics. And yet, this phenomenon is incredibly under-reported, with only 1 in 500 individuals disclosing a mental health problem to their university, because of the "stigma, retaliation or the expected negative impact on one's future career." (1)

What does the science say?

Well, to put it plainly, it says that mental health is a big deal in PhD students.

A study published in May of this year by a group in Belgium in the Journal of Research Policy looked at a mental health in a group of 3659 PhD students, 90% of whom were studying science or social science. They did so using a General Health Questionnaire (or GHQ), which is commonly used to screen populations and identify psychological distress and potential psychiatric disorders, like depression. What they found is absolutely mind-blowing. 

  • 51% of PhD students experienced psychological distress, which was 2x as high as the general population

  • 32% of PhD students experienced psychiatric disorders, such as depression.

What caused these instances of mental health issues in PhD students? The study looked at a number of factors, including job demands, discipline, type of appointment, level in PhD program, leadership style of mentor, organization context, lifestyle conflicts, socio-demographics, etc. Their studies linked psychological distress and psychiatric disorders to:

  • high job demands

  • low job control

  • Students employed through "project funding" (note that it was unclear what was meant by this) and personal scholarships

  • Students who were earlier in their PhD at the end of their PhD

  • Students whose mentor had a passive leadership style

  • Students with little or no interest in remaining in academia

  • Students with work-family or family-work conflicts

The University of California Berkeley did another study in 2014 on Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being, as well. In their study, they found that 47% of PhD students and 37% of Master's and Profession students were depressed.  In their study, they cited the following as some of the predictors in the life satisfaction & depression models:

  • career prospects

  • overall health

  • academic engagement (or disengagement)

  • academic progress & preparation

  • feeling valued & included

  • adviser relationships

So, what should be done? The Belgium study cited numerous reasons why the health and well-being of PhD students is of the utmost importance, including the effect of their mental health on the larger research team, on the forward progress of the scientific industry and, of course, individual well-being. (Glad they included that one in there). They also note that such issues certainly don't contribute to the growth of the industry, noting that the 30-50% dropout rates of PhD students (great, now I'm a statistic haha) make it "difficult for the industry to attract new talent and threaten the viability and quality of the academic research industry."

What can you do?

Self-care. You had to know that I was going to mention this one, right? But one of the lessons I wrote about in my "15 Lessons from a First Year Graduate Student" post way back when was "A healthy lifestyle is not a priority unless you make it one. So, if you want it, you have to work for it." But self-care doesn't just mean making time for your physical health. It means making time for your mental health as well. So weather that means taking a "Me" day to do things you actually enjoy, pampering yourself at a spa or just taking a day off, implementing some self-care is imperative! I've address tons of this stuff on my blog, like how to stay healthy in college, including how to motivate yourself to exercise, how to get through the "I don't have time myth," suggestions for dorm food, etc., a free download on creating your routine, In terms of mental health, I also have tons of tips on how to fit in personal development. After my experience with my own mental and physical health struggles in graduate school, self-care practices became my weapon to keep myself together (right). If there's anything that I'm particularly passionate about, it's about helping people find that balance so please contact me if you need help with this one!

Talk about what you're going through. I get that it's hard to talk about some of your struggles to family. I didn't because I didn't want to worry mine. But that' doesn't meant you shouldn't talk about them. Whether it's to a friend/partner/mentor, it's hugely important. A friend in your program may be experiencing the same things, or have in the past. I talked to a good friend of mine on multiple occasions on the struggles I was going through. A mentor can be hugely useful as well because they've likely been exactly where you are. But if all else fails, don't hesitate to seek support from someone at your University. When I was struggling at the end of my first year, I told our program director who put me in contact with a counselor whom I then went to go see. I cried basically the whole session, but I can't tell you how therapeutic it was to just talk. It's something I hadn't let myself do and it was so incredibly necessary. It was like the floodgate opened. I could write a whole blog post on this, but I'll just say, talk to someone. You won't regret it.

Make permanent changes. Whether it's self-care habit, taking the time to talk to someone, working less or giving yourself more time off, it's important that you make permanent changes in your life. Or else it's super easy to fall back into old patterns. Set up routines. Get accountability partners. Tell your boss. Tell your lab mates. Whatever you need to do to make sure you maintain change in your life and your lifestyle that keep you sane, strong, and moving forward.

Take action in creating change. The Belgium study outlines an extensive list of policy implications to help better mental health for PhD students at the research policy and university level. Do you agree? Maybe you have other ideas! Regardless, starting a discussion in your program or at your university is a productive and proactive way to be a voice in making changes to better the mental health status of PhD students.

The bottom line is that everyone's experience in graduate school is extremely different. Some will say it was the best years of their life, while others will say that it was the worst and there are a lot of factors that play into that. But the important things to keep in mind are these:

  • There's a wealth of support out there as long as you look for it!

  • Building down time and time to be social into your life is imperative in your PhD program, so make sure you do it! This is something I emphasize in a previous post with my lessons from my first year of graduate school.

  • Asking for help is not weakness. I did it and so many others do.

  • It's necessary to talk about these things and academics should encourage being vocal about this changing these mental health behaviors.

Check out some of the cited articles here:

  1. Work Organization and Mental Health Problems in PhD Students - Published May 2014, Vol 46, Iss. 4 of Research Policy

  2. PhD Students face significant mental health challenges - Published April 4 2017, Science Magazine

  3. This is your mind on Grad School - Berkeley Science Review

  4. Paying Graduate School's Mental Toll - Science

  5. Mental Health Issues Among Graduate Students - Inside Higher Ed/Grad Hacker

  6. Graduate School & Mental Illness: Is There a Link? - Psychology Today

  7. Grappling with graduate student mental health and suicide - Chemical & Engineering News