Half Of All PhD Students Suffer From Psychological Distress

One-in-three are at risk from developing a mental illness. The Nice LifePic/Shutterstock

Undertaking a PhD in any subject in any part of the world is to walk down a path like no other. It’s thrilling and terrifying in equal measure, and at the end of it, you’ll be the world’s foremost expert in the research you’ve chosen to spend 3-5 years of your life on.

However, for many people, that path to knowledge is often walked alone. Although individual experiences vary, composing a doctoral thesis is often extremely stressful. Many PhD students suffer from mental health problems, from chronic anxiety to clinical depression.

A brand new study by a team of international researchers has underscored just how common such conditions crop up in this very specific demographic. Writing in the journal Research Policy, it’s concluded that one-in-two PhD students experience psychological distress, and one-in-three are at risk of experiencing a psychiatric disorder, either over the short or long-term – particularly depression.

“Most prevalent are feelings of being under constant strain, unhappiness and depression, sleeping problems due to worries, inability to overcome difficulties and not being able to enjoy day-to-day activities,” the team, led by Ghent University, write in their paper.

The primary predictor of mental health issues was work-family conflict, where the demands of the research interfere with their family or personal life. Common factors here include work overload, unrealistic demands, unsupportive supervisors or interpersonal problems at work.

Stress explained. TED-Ed via YouTube

“The prevalence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in the highly educated general population, highly educated employees, and higher education students,” the team noted. A PhD student was 2.4 times more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the general population with an undergraduate degree.

The study involved analyzing the relative mental health of 3,659 PhD researchers in Belgium. Although the paper only focused on one country, it’s highly likely that their results can be replicated elsewhere.

It’s distressing that depression is noted as being the most common disorder among PhD students. Worldwide, 350 million people suffer from depression and 800,000 people each year take their own lives as a result of it being left untreated.

It’s been estimated that 83 percent of people will experience a mental disorder in their lifetimes, which means that it’s actually, sadly, “normal” to be a sufferer in this case. Some groups of people are more likely than others to experience it, however – particularly women, for a variety of reasons.

All in all, then, this body of work suggests that women studying for a PhD are more likely than most to suffer from depression. There is a particularly harrowing piece on Quartz highlighting this problem, one that desperately needs to be talked about a lot more.

“The days I spent pursuing my PhD in physics were some of my darkest,” the author recalls. “It wasn’t the intellectual challenges or the workload that brought me down; it was my deteriorating mental health."

Depression explained. World Health Organization via YouTube

People pursue PhDs for an unfathomably large number of reasons. Most love the subject they are studying above all else, others wish to travel more, and some wish to start a rather unique form of intellectual adventure.

Successfully gaining a doctorate is exhilarating, for sure, but this enormous psychological cost demands to be addressed seriously and comprehensively. It is a dark shadow that needs illumination – otherwise thousands more will be enveloped by it.

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