Approximately one-third 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 Science Careers, 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 “[s]eek 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.