Depressed girl sitting at window

Mental Health Issues Are Part of a PhD’s Job Description

In this blog post, I’d like to talk about the tacit acceptance of mental health problems in PhD students.

Evidence of a Mental Health Crisis in Academia

A Science article from March 2018 talks about a mental health crisis in academia.

The article discusses the results of a Nature Biotechnology survey that concludes that there is such a mental health crisis in graduate education that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

Frederik Anseel, professor at King’s College London, is quoted in the article saying that the study is evidence that “there is probably a serious problem with mental health in academia”.

For more evidence of this crisis in academia, I maintain a list of mental health studies on PhD students where I give summaries of studies concerning the mental well-being of PhD students.

Culture of Acceptance Around Mental Health Issues

What I find very disturbing is that there’s an element of expectation with respect to going through these difficulties.

An article from The Guardian describes a “culture of acceptance” around mental health issues in academia.

In this article, an anonymous academic describes her new job as a researcher development officer at a research-intensive university.

In her own words, she says that “I now get paid to relive the worst experience of my life, and hope that I can use that experience to help others.”.

She further explains that she often sees students that show up for a session about “building and maintaining an effective relationship with your supervisor” with such a low level of confidence that they don’t participate at all in the session.

The author also talks about people that simply leave the university without their qualification, aka dropping out.

I’d say that this is arguably the most common case as people don’t normally ask for support due to the stigma associated with having mental health issues.

Furthermore, she continues to give anecdotal evidence about people she knows who have been involved in PhDs.

Among them she’s seen “depression, sleeping issues, eating disorders, alcoholism, self-harming, and suicide attempts”.

For what it’s worth, I’m also aware of cases involving most of the aforementioned issues.

She also describes the toxic academic culture you’re typically exposed to during a PhD programme.

She says that “many PhD students take the view that if you’re not doing overnight experiments, missing meals, or binge drinking, you’re not doing it right”.

If you’re in such a toxic work environment, don’t hope something will change.

Get out. Now.

In a related article, The Guardian quotes the opinions of several academics on the issue of culture.

Nadine Muller, lecturer in English literature and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, says that in academia, the line between the personal and the professional is often blurred.

She says that “doctoral and early-career scholars are seldom trained in how to firmly draw that line and value themselves beyond their work”.

In the UK, Sally Hunt, the General Secretary of the University and College Union, adds (from The Guardian):

Further and higher education workers who experience issues relating to mental health face ignorance, discrimination and stigma from their managers and colleagues.

It’s important to recognise that it will be expected of you to suffer. No one will tell you that you need to take it easy.

Mental health issues are just another job responsibility on your job description as a PhD.

The big problem is the fact that nobody told you about it prior to accepting the job offer.

Oh, and you’re not getting any extra hazard pay as part of your compensation package.

You’re expected to give a higher priority to your research than to your health and just suck it up.

That’s just absurd.

Collected Personal Accounts from PhD Students

In this section, I’d like to give some accounts of what other PhD students have went through.

In a Quartz article, Jennifer Walker describes how she almost committed suicide during her PhD.

She says that the days she spent pursuing her PhD in physics were some of her darkest.

Business Insider reports how a PhD student at a university in the Netherlands has started seeing a psychologist due to her studies.

She said she “is worrying all the time […] can never completely relax, and checks her emails countless times a day, even when on holiday”.

She also said that “If it was a regular job, I would have quit over a year ago […] Every single day I think about quitting. I absolutely dread going to the office.”

This is a clear example of the sunk cost fallacy, which I will talk about it in a future article. Because the student has invested so much in the PhD already, she finds it very difficult to quit.

The author of a Vice article recalls how a friend said that “mental illness is to grad students as black lung was to Victorian coal miners”.

Another friend of the author, who dropped out of a PhD, told him he “didn’t realize how miserable school made him until [he] was out”.

The writer goes on to say how failures will be personally attributed to you and how you’ll be made to feel ashamed if you think about leaving academia.

A former PhD student says in The Irish Times that she found the years spent on her PhD among the most difficult of her life.

She says: “I don’t think there’s anything darker than doing a PhD”.

My Take on Mental Health in Academia

It’s good that these concerns are getting more media attention. This will force universities to take more action.

Nevertheless, these issues won’t be solved in the next couple of years. You can’t change the culture of an environment in such a short amount of time.

Since these problems can have such a serious negative impact on your life, like they did on me, I advocate opting out and quitting your PhD.

I don’t know your specific circumstances, but maybe your family such as your parents are putting pressure on you to stay in the PhD.

This is the case with many PhD students. They feel pressured by the people around them to stay in the programme and finish the PhD, otherwise they’ll become a “failure”. I will address this issue in a future blog post.

You must make your own decisions and not live up to anyone’s expectations.

You choose what you want in life. Is your current situation a good choice for you?

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