- Oli Scarff / Getty
- PhD students are at a heightened risk of developing mental health problems, according to research. This is due to a number of factors, including the work load and lack of support from tutors. Supervisors should be better trained in recognising the signs for depression, anxiety, and suicide.
Academia isn’t for everyone. The hours are long, you’re likely to spend a lot of time looking at a computer or in a lab, and you are endlessly trying to prove you deserve the title of “Doctor.”
Many of the pressures PhD students face have been published in the Guardian’s Academics Anonymous series, including the stress associated with getting your papers published, and the bullying behaviour or lack of useful feedback from supervisors who aren’t properly trained.
According to a study published in the journal Research Policy in May, this stress can have an impact on PhD students’ mental health. Approximately a third of students working towards their doctorate could be at risk of developing a psychiatric condition such as depression, the authors concluded.
The sample size was small, with the team analysing results from 3,659 students at universities in Flanders, Belgium, studying science or humanities subjects. However, the results are a valuable addition to the research into how academic study affects our mental health.
About 51% of people surveyed said they had experienced at least two symptoms of poor mental health over the past week, and 32% reported at least four symptoms. This prevalence was about twice as high as the highly educated general population.
Some of the most common symptoms students reported were feeling under constant strain, losing sleep due to worry, being unhappy or depressed, and not being able to enjoy their day-to-day activities.
The researchers also found that the greatest predictor for experiencing mental health problems was finding it difficult to take care of family needs due to work commitments. The high demands of the PhD itself and little control over the work were also associated with more symptoms.
Guilt, failure, and bullying
Claire*, who is currently in the final six months of her PhD at Imperial College London, told Business Insider that she can see how studying at this level has the potential to affect someone’s mental health.
She said that she and some of her colleagues all thought about quitting about half way through their PhD.
“It seems to be when you feel like you should have accomplished something by then, but you haven’t, and the end isn’t exactly in sight,” she said. “For me, the frustration comes from the fact that I know I should get up at 7 a.m. and start working, but I hit snooze 10 times because I technically don’t have to be in an office. Then when I do get up I feel super guilty and behind and then I’m unproductive and the cycle continues.”
Claire also started getting physically ill, with a bad cough and a fever, but blood tests indicated there was nothing wrong. The doctors told her it could have been linked to feeling stressed.
“Coming into the last six months I’m glad I did it, but there were definitely a lot of tears a long the way,” Claire said.
“I’ve said to a few people that I think PhDs aren’t necessarily the most ‘academically’ challenging, comparative to for example my Masters, but they’re emotionally challenging.” Challenging in the sense of whether you can stick it out, handle the failure associated with it, and work independently.
However, having an interest in an academic career and having a clear vision for the future could offset the risks of developing a mental health problem, the authors note in the study. Having an inspirational supervisor was also an important factor.
Unfortunately, not everyone who starts their PhD necessarily appreciates their supervisor. In fact, some are not just unhelpful, but abusive to their students.
One student, Alex*, who has been doing her PhD at a university in the Netherlands for the past two years, and has started seeing a psychologist because of how it has impacted her.
She told Business Insider that she is worrying all the time, and sometimes she doesn’t eat or sleep as a result. She can never completely relax, and checks her emails countless times a day, even when on holiday. She puts this mainly down to her tutors, who are not only unsupportive, but insidious bullies.
“If it was a regular job, I would have quit over a year ago,” Alex said. “Every single day I think about quitting. I absolutely dread going to the office.”
She said the content of her PhD is intense enough on its own, as she studies refugee mothers, children, and sexual violence. The constant undermining and pressure from her supervisors is the worst part, though. She has just started seeing a psychologist for therapy sessions, and said being able to speak about it has been like two years of weight lifting from her shoulders.
What is it about academia that attracts this kind of behaviour?
“I have a feeling it’s because we’re mostly so honoured to be accepted, that we don’t question anything that seems off,” Alex said. “We know our place at the bottom of the ladder and so anything can happen higher up without being challenged. And then if or when things go badly wrong, it’s still our fault and not those ultimately responsible.”
One way to try and combat this could be to invest in proper leadership training for academic supervisors. After all, they are trained in their subject, not in being a teacher or a mentor.
In an article for Quartz, Jennifer Walker wrote about when she attempted suicide during her PhD due to suffering with imposter syndrome and depression. She said university tutors should be trained in the warning signs of depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, and substance abuse.
She added: “They need to create a culture of openness that not only removes the stigma associated with mental-health problems but encourages students to ask for help.”
* Names changed at the interviewee’s request.