Why are mental health problems elevated among graduate students?

Why are mental health problems elevated among graduate students?

As an academic who has suffered from mental illness my whole life, part of my research praxis involves seeking out ways and means to improve mental hygiene for the public as well as researchers like myself. I went through a mental rollercoaster during my PhD which was compounded by the unexpected death of my father in my third year, and a nervous breakdown a few months later. Add to that the fact that I was already antsy about whether biological sciences research was where I belonged, and you get the perfect conditions for continued stress.

It is important to note that my experience and my struggles could have been anyone’s reality, whether in academia or not. In my case, I come from an academic background where in my early teens I had to make a choice between studying sciences or arts: this demarcation was how our secondary school system functioned in Nigeria. Thus, from an early age my career trajectory had been set. While as a child I had always wanted to be a scientist, my undergraduate years brought some doubts. Even though I got good grades, work often felt tedious and I wasn’t always passionate or clear about what I could contribute to the field of biological sciences. Nevertheless, I obtained an undergraduate degree. Afterwards it came down to taking the next logical step, so I got a BSc honours, Masters, then PhD - all in biological sciences.

By the time I started my postdoctoral research role, I felt extremely pigeonholed in immunology research and didn’t feel like I belonged or deserved to be amongst my peers who were so passionate about their own research within the field. This distressing feeling of not belonging is called ‘Imposter syndrome’ and is quite common in academia, and in high achieving women within. In my case however I eventually recognised that a contributing factor to my imposter syndrome was simply my need to branch out, career-wise. Following up on this eased my stress significantly.

During my time in research I also encountered other stressors specific to the research environment. Research by nature is unpredictable. This means that day-to-day work may not always be structured. And for some of us, structure is quite comforting (especially for me whose OCD demands it) and therefore the lack of it becomes a stressor. This is not to say that we cannot meet expectations in research, but just to point out that the precariousness itself may be distressing.

Further, maintaining work-life balance as an academic presents its own set of challenges. Research environments rely on funding which in turn relies on research output. This unfortunately results in ‘output’ being regarded as the measure of productivity, and as such there is a pressure on all researchers to perform and produce. This may result in working overtime, which was the case with me and many of my colleagues. While not all academics view overtime work negatively, work-life balance is imperative to mental hygiene.

Further, as a Black African woman researching in the UK, overwhelming loneliness is something I’ve often experienced, being far from family. Moreover, even with the different privileges I have, I’ve still encountered racism, misogynoir (which is racialised sexism), and microaggressions. These can all be very destabilizing and disheartening, and no doubt affect all Black people and People of Colour (PoC) within academia.

While I’ve discussed the stressors I’ve encountered at a personal level (which possibly some of you may have too), let us take a bird’s eye view at the common factors that play a role in the mental health struggles of academics. 

A closer look at mental health in academia

While the mental health of academics has been a topic of concern for a long time, for various reasons it was mostly spoken about in whispers. Open discussions and dialogs regarding this began fairly recently. For the sake of improving the wellbeing of academics and supporting those who may already have mental health struggles, it is important to acknowledge the problem, and keep investigating the causes of mental illness that are specific to academics and implementing solutions.

The seminal article published in March, 2018 by Evans and colleagues showed evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Evans et al. (2018) surveyed over 2000 graduates, most of whom were PhD students and 40% of whom were in biological and physical sciences and engineering, to ascertain mental health trends within this population.

The findings should be a wake-up call for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs): these graduates surveyed had mental illness six times more than that of the general population. While the study focused on anxiety and depression, because of the spectrum of mental illness, it cannot be taken for granted that graduates and academics at large do not suffer from other types of mental illness. Evans and colleagues also found anxiety and depression to be higher amongst female, transgender and/or gender non-conforming individuals.

Another study conducted in early 2019 by the Higher Education website Wonkhe also found that loneliness levels are elevated in ‘Black and Minority Ethnic’ students (and also in disabled students and international students). Both the Evans and Wonkhe studies further confirm that mental illness is often exacerbated by marginalization. It is therefore essential that the causes of the significant increase of mental illness within the academy are acknowledged so action can be taken to support graduates and academics.

What affects the mental health of researchers?

From my lived experience, the observations I’ve made, and the conversations I’ve had with colleagues who themselves have struggled with mental health, I expatiate below upon two factors that affect the mental health of researchers and which can be targeted as avenues for solution.

Social inequalities

In facilitating a discussion about how HEIs can support the diverse population within their walls who may be suffering with mental illness, we need to consider intersections of oppression. What this means is that depending on the context, for example, it may not always be adequate to simply lump all women researchers within a cohort and study ‘mental stressors that affect women researchers’. There needs to be a consideration of other avenues of marginalization (other than sexism alone) that have an interplay with these stressors, such as racism, homophobia and queerphobia, transphobia, and ableism to name a few. Therefore, the information gleaned may give a truer representation of lived experience which will in turn inform more nuanced solutions.

Senior Psychologist at Pearn Kandola, Guilaine Kinouani recently wrote an essay detailing the racism that her children face in school, which I found moving. The racism her children, and many like them, are subjected to in 2019 echoes what many others have faced through time, and still face within HEIs. It is thus crucial that research culture does not cause more harm to already-marginalized individuals, and in fact, that there be support to help them achieve their personal best in studies and research together with tackling institutional social injustice.

Guilaine Kinouani explains further, and unknowingly validates many of my feelings about my experiences throughout my research career:

Several factors influence the psychological health of students. Going to University is a transition move and transitions are associated with increased stress and the risk of psychological distress. Students must contend with many changes from living independently, often far away from social and family support systems, to coping with an unknown environment or culture, to mastering a new subject matter or discipline and the associated academic pressures.

This was the case with me. I was born and raised in Nigeria, then moved to Johannesburg, South Africa (with my older sister) to study for six years. While I absolutely loved the University of Johannesburg and am quite content with the standard of education I received, finances meant I was only able to visit my family once a year. This homesickness, in addition to heightened anxiety and sleep anxiety, took a toll on my everyday happiness. Guilaine Kinouani adds:

Further, there are anxieties many have about money, debts, careers and often unspoken fears about the future. Added to this are common negative experiences and structural issues related to axes of identity and intersectionality factors such race and/or disability so students from marginalised groups are at even greater risk is psychological distress or ill health. Indeed, such students often experience University spaces as violent, if not traumatic. There thus is plenty to process and navigate which naturally stretches students’ coping abilities.

It is traumatic for many Black and PoC academics to navigate White spaces. Again, many Black and PoC academics have tried to speak about this and do groundwork toward curbing this within the academy. Unfortunately, it takes a toll on many of us and my way of dealing with it is to step back for a while from certain equality initiatives till I regain the strength and emotional re-invigoration I need to be up to the task once more.

Dr. Kay Guccione, National Teaching Fellow at The University of Sheffield, emphasizes the need to capture specific experiences and echoes Guilaine Kinouani’s call for consideration of how marginalization affects mental health within academia:

We need much more information about which groups of students are experiencing the poorest mental health — universities should be asking what’s happening for disabled or chronically ill PGRs experiencing poverty through unpaid sick leave or who can’t afford to take time off; what’s happening for single parents who’ve travelled to the UK and are balancing a busy home life with PhD study in the context of a national environment hostile to immigration; what’s going on for postgrad students who are studying part time, remotely, and around full time jobs? I would like to see universities listen hard to hear the voices of atypical and marginalised groups of research students to understand the diversity of intersecting experiences.

Professional relationships  

Another very crucial aspect in an academic’s life is their relationship with their supervisor. In the cohort surveyed by Evans et al. (2018), approximately half the students with anxiety and depression reported a poor relationship with their Principal Investigator (PI). This relationship between student and supervisor is critical to building trust and ensuring as smooth a research career as possible.

Dr. Guccione has dedicated years to studying how trust is built within the student-supervisor relationship and is keen to do away with any preconceived notion that students with mental illness cannot have just as much success and academic impact as their colleagues without. It is important that PhD supervisors themselves should at the very least be able to signpost PhD students to where they can receive immediate help for their mental health struggles. Further, supervisors need to be adequately supported to ensure they are prepared and capable of supervising students.

Mentors too can have a huge impact on the mental health of researchers. Dr. Guccione and Dr. Billy Bryan conducted research showing that when it comes to how PhD students view their PhD degrees, supervision is the major influence on students perceptions of value of the PhD. Together with Evans’ work this shows that relationships within the academy, especially with those who bear a responsibility of overseeing our progress, play a pivotal role in our sense of wellbeing. Dr. Guccione has seen her academic role encompass mentoring, and mentoring consultations – all to fit the over-arching need of the students she has come into contact with.

Professional services staff (for example researcher developers, departmental postgrad administrators, librarians etc) are often confided in by PGRs who feel they can’t talk to their more senior academic colleagues. These staff have deep insight into both students’ experiences and also into the policies, systems and processes that exacerbate the issues students face. Universities should place value in the opinions of these staff as they can solicit and amplify data to inform new policies or initiatives and make sure we are solving structural problems as well as supporting students to develop.

Indeed, during my own PhD I had the privilege of often speaking to Dr. Guccione about personal and professional matters. This was in addition to informal chats I had with members of staff and colleagues whom I trusted, and I knew had my best interest at heart with how they signposted me to places of support. Dr. Guccione was also unsurprised by the findings in the Evans paper:

We have to acknowledge too that PGRs are part of a much bigger picture of stress, anxiety, depression and burnout within academia caused by overburdening and impossible workloads, intense monitoring of performance, career precarity, declining pay, and the recent attacks on pensions. As the group of academics with the lowest power, and the poorest prospects for job security, no wonder early career researchers feel the impact on their health so keenly.

Conclusion

To ensure that graduates and academics facing mental health struggles are fully supported, Evans and colleagues raise three helpful suggestions: firstly, access to support for mental health needs should be enhanced; infrastructure needs to be put in place so students and staff receive mental health education, and are also referred and signposted for help when the need arises. Secondly, there needs to be an intentional culture change accompanied by de-stigmatisation of mental illness and improved work-life balance. Thirdly, Evans and colleagues call us to action to undertake more research into the effectiveness of intervention strategies towards helping mental illness sufferers. Guilaine Kinouani gives similar recommendations:

It’s critical that students be better prepared for the challenges they may face and that survival, self-care and coping strategies be explored early on to mitigate the stresses of student life. A climate which fosters help seeking must be facilitated. At the same time there is a need to constantly review academic cultures, processes and expectations to assess for undue negative effects on the psychological health of students and limit risks particularly to those more likely to be harmed. This a long-haul piece with a clear ethical, moral and legal case. The good news is there is plenty that can be done in the short term to help protect and safeguard the psychological health of our students.

Few months ago, driven by my own desire to see change within the academy regarding mental health, I published an essay making a number of suggestions on how the academy can enact support for those of us who have mental illness. Whilst studies into the factors that may trigger mental illness are useful to help us identify roots causes, we need to concurrently identify and implement academy-specific strategies towards support and healing. Not only will this result in a better quality of life for those affected, but it could also have a knock-on effect of improving research culture as a whole.

Therefore, it is imperative that HEIs looking to support their academics with mental health struggles intentionally act towards change. This means putting in place structures to optimise a work-life balance, creating open communication lines within departments, appointment of managers for graduates to prioritise graduate wellbeing, creating opportunities for gaining transferrable skills, intermittent checks to ensure bullying culture (both overt and covert) is not tolerated, clearly defined working hours, zero tolerance policies for any kind of bigotry, actions towards equity, and active support for sourcing financial aid and funding.

Supporting academics with mental health struggles and ensuring that the structures which exacerbate these struggles are minimised is bound to have a positive ripple effect on research culture. And in turn an improved research culture will lead to greater productivity. This should however not be the driving force behind trying to help graduates and academics: we should prioritise helping them lead a good quality of life during the time we have them within the academy. We should also arm them with the tools they need to extend this into their non-academic lives and into their futures.

Furaha is currently collaborating with Cactus Communications/Editage to conduct a global survey on mental health among researchers. Click here to learn about and take the survey. 

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