There appears to be a mental health crisis in academia, especially among graduate students. Some of its contributing factors are discussed in what follows, with the hope of soliciting suggestions for steps departments or individuals can take to help.
From one recent metastudy:
The high levels of stress inherent in the academic researcher population has been shown to increase their risk of experiencing burnout and depression. Early career researchers, a term often used to describe doctoral researchers and post-doctoral researchers, are thought to be particularly at risk of experiencing common mental health difficulties due to the job precarity that characterizes this career stage, and the prevalence of top-down power dynamics which can prevent the disclosure of bullying, harassment, and exploitation.
A small, yet growing number of quantitative studies utilizing author-created questionnaires and validated mental health measures have given an indication as to the prevalence and severity of mental-ill health amongst postgraduate researchers in particular. Evans et al., utilised the Generalised Anxiety Disorder questionnaire (GAD-7) and the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) to show that postgraduate researchers (comprising both MSc students and doctoral researchers) were six times more likely to report experiencing anxiety and depression compared to those in the general population, with poor work life balance and poor mentor relationships being cited as correlating with worse mental health outcomes. Similarly, a recent systematic review and meta-analysis found that 24% of doctoral researchers displayed clinically significant symptoms of depression and 17% displayed clinically significant symptoms of anxiety, rates which were identified to be similar to estimated prevalence rates in other high stress populations including medical students and resident physicians.
Estimates of the prevalence and severity of specific mental health difficulties amongst post-doctoral researchers and more senior researchers are scarce, however, a recently released report by Education Support found that out of 2,046 academic (85.9%) and academic-related staff (14.1%) in the UK, 53.2% showed probable signs of depression.
Factors that seem to be contributing to problems with mental well-being, according to the metastudy, include:
- Insecurity and career prospects
- financial insecurity: scarcity of funding, small stipends
- job insecurity: precarious short-term work contracts, grant-dependent positions, lack of voice owed to precarity
- career prospects and aspirations: lack of permanent positions, limited preparation for non-academic career paths
- The demandingness of the job
- high expectations and overworking
- aggressively competitive workplace
- reluctance to disclose mental health issues for fear of jeopardizing one’s reputation for being able to meet high standards
- lack of clarity regarding the nature of supervisory relationships (pastoral? confidential?)
- strong personal identification with success as academic
- Work-life balance
- importance of being able to relocate
- feeling unable to take breaks
- feel forced to choose between having children and making progress in one’s career
- the “blessing and curse” nature of work flexibility
- Relationships and role models
- social relationships threatened by the time demands of academic work
- unhelpful and ineffective mentoring
- lack of diversity at senior levels of the academy
- feelings of isolation
- Impact of working in academia on health
- normalization of chronic stress
- lack of open discourse about mental health
- Coping and support
- lack of support by organizations (“a disconnect between the high expectations set by the higher education system, and the time, resources, and encouragement given to researchers in order to reach these expectations”)
- lack of effectiveness of student services in handling problems specific to doctoral researchers
- untutored individual coping strategies
- unequal access to resources, support, and opportunities
What factors tend to contribute positively to mental well-being? Here are some possibilities gleaned from the study:
- Membership in active peer and social networks
- Fostering an environment where open discourse around mental health and well-being at work can occur without fear of repercussions
- Making sure academics are aware of the institutional support available to them for mental health
- University investment in mentoring and supervisory relationships with appropriate training for supervisors, clarification of the supervisory role, and ensuring a good fit between doctoral researcher and supervisor
- Updating of institutional policies regarding support, leave, diversity
One thing that comes through in reading about this is the importance of community—of there being a work environment in which academics feel welcome, and having a sense that your peers, colleagues, and teachers care about you. It would be useful to hear ideas for how academic departments can develop or strengthen the sense of community and support they provide.
More generally, I would be grateful for suggestions about steps individuals and departments can (or do) take to help foster mental well-being in academia.