Universities urged to tackle PhD mental health crisis

Institutions told they have a ‘culture of excluding postgraduates’ in wake of damning study

April 13, 2017
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Someone to watch over me? A YouthSight and YouGov survey last year found that one in five UK students thought that their institution’s mental health services were not helpful

Universities have been urged to do more to tackle a mental health crisis among postgraduates as new figures show that more than half of PhD students experience symptoms of psychological distress and one in three is at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder.

The latest evidence of the problems experienced by doctoral students comes from a survey that compared PhD candidates with other groups in universities and wider society. It found that PhD students were 2.8 times more likely to develop mental health problems than university employees that hold a higher education qualification and 2.4 times more likely than degree-holders in the general population. The risk was also 1.9 times higher at PhD level than among other university students.

The study, detailed in a paper authored by academics in four countries and published in Research Policy, surveyed 3,659 PhD students, 769 degree-educated people in the general population, 592 degree-educated employees and 333 students undertaking bachelor’s, master’s or other higher education programmes. All respondents were based in the Flanders region of Belgium.

It found that 51 per cent of PhD students suffered from at least two of 12 symptoms that are indicators of psychological distress, compared with between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of respondents in the comparison groups.

Two-fifths (40 per cent) of PhD students reported at least three symptoms and 32 per cent experienced at least four; the latter is seen as an indication of being at risk of having or developing a mental illness.

The most common symptom was feeling under constant strain, which was selected by 41 per cent of PhD students and between 27 per cent and 30 per cent of the comparison respondents.

Other prevalent symptoms among PhD students were unhappiness and depression (30 per cent) and sleeping problems owing to worries (28 per cent).

Work-family conflict, job demands, job control and leadership style were the strongest predictors of mental illness among PhD students.

Katia Levecque, professor of industrial relations at Ghent University and co-author of the study, said that the results indicated that the environment in which PhD students work is “associated with mental health risks” that may not impact on other types of students.

Professor Levecque said that she would expect the figures to be “much worse” in other countries, such as the UK and the US, where, unlike in Belgium, fees for PhD study are high, grants are low and many doctoral students subsequently have a job alongside their studies.  

The research is the latest in a string of studies that have demonstrated the mental health risks associated with postgraduate study.

A survey of postgraduate researchers carried out by the University of Exeter’s Students’ Guild in 2015 found that 40 per cent of PhD students at the institution believed that studying for a doctorate had worsened their physical and mental health.

Meanwhile, a study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley in the same year indicated that almost half (47 per cent) of PhD students at the institution reached 10 out of 30 points on a scale measuring depression, compared with 37 per cent of master’s students.

Recent research has also suggested that universities could be doing more to help tackle these issues. A YouthSight and YouGov survey last year found that one in five (21 per cent) UK university students thought that their institution’s mental health services were not at all helpful while a report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute argued that many universities need to treble how much they spend on support.

Noha Abu El Magd, the representative for postgraduate research on the UK’s National Union of Students, said that while universities have recently started to increase welfare funding after several years of cuts, many still “neglect” postgraduates.  

“There’s a lack of specific focus on their needs to help them navigate through postgraduate study,” she said, noting that PhD students were more likely to be carers or parents and to work for long hours alone, compared with other students.

Institutions also have a “culture of excluding postgraduates” when it comes to dedicated activities and study spaces on campus, which can contribute to feelings of isolation, she said.

Rosemary Deem, dean of the doctoral school and vice-principal (education) at Royal Holloway, University of London and chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education, said that universities have made some headway in tackling mental health issues among PhD students but that progress is patchy and there is “an awful lot more that we can do”.



Print headline: Call for action on PhD mental  health crisis

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Reader's comments (4)

early careers in HE are stressful & competitive. One problem that I have seen is that too many students are admitted who don't have appropriate qualification or ability. There is sometimes an expectation that they will somehow catch up - always a mistake. Universities and departments plus Students' Unions need to ensure that there are social networks and opportunities so that research students are encouraged to get out of the lab/away from the desk and interact with others.
I think a big problem in the UK is that student support can usually only provide 4 sessions of counselling. This is not enough for complex or severe cases, added to this you are often pushed towards NHS services (which makes sense, don't get me wrong) but then you're on a 6 month to 2 year waiting list and again get maybe 6-8 sessions. The only option is to go private but at £20-£40 a session you'll be hard pressed to access them even if you're lucky enough to get a stipend. PhD's are uniquely stressful and there needs to be a change in culture to combat this directly. Providing more mental health support (and uni's already go far beyond nearly all employers) is difficult and just papering over the cracks.
The biggest problem is one of inconsistency of professional support, and university administrators who do nothing about it. Some students get no meetings, no discussion of their topic, and no reading of their chapter drafts, or any feedback. Others get extensive support and feedback, and this may all happen inside the same department, of the same university. The only difference is who your supervisor happens to be. Such wild differences in professional support would not be tolerated in any other industry, and would almost certainly be a cause for litigation in many sectors. To my mind, the only solution is to bring some market discipline to this internally intractable problem. When a student is offered a PhD place, they should be given email access to current students of the supervisor they're allocated to, who can comment on objective criteria, such as frequency of meetings, depth and substance of discussions, whether (and how frequently) written feedback is given, etc. Only this way can prospective students make an informed decision before potentially wasting 4 years of their life, fruitlessly trying to get their supervisors to take an interest in their project. Moreover, only this way will universities feel the pinch, and stop being so inappropriately deferential towards the turkeys amongst their staff.
If anyone is interested in sharing their views aligned to support for PGRs, we are undertaking a study on: PGR's experiences of gatekeepers: Link http://goo.gl/E6br8b for PGR researchers who use gatekeepers to access participants and resources


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