A new study found that graduate students are six times more likely to exhibit depression symptoms than the general population. The findings should surprise no one but it’s important to have quantitative data about a mental health hazard running rampant in universities across the entire world. Such data “should prompt academia and policymakers to consider intervention strategies,” the authors wrote in the journal Nature.
Researchers led by Teresa Evans, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, surveyed 2,279 students in 26 different countries, 70% of whom were female, 28% male, and 2% transgender. The fields of study involved were 56% humanities and 38% physical sciences. Approximately 40% of the respondents scored moderate to severe for anxiety. Nearly 40 percent of respondents also showed signs of moderate to severe depression.
Consistent with previous research on non-student populations, transgender and gender-nonconforming graduate students, along with women, were more likely to experience anxiety and depression than their cisgender male counterparts. The prevalence of anxiety and depression in transgender or gender-nonconforming graduate students was 55% and 57%, respectively. Among cis students, 43% of women had anxiety and 41% were depressed. That’s compared to 34% of cis men reporting symptoms of anxiety and 35% showing signs of depression.
These incredibly high rates of anxiety and depression, when compared to the general population, are alarming and should serve as a wakeup call for the academia, Evans says.
It’s not hard to understand why life as a Ph.D. student can literally drive some people crazy. Long hours, social isolation, and feelings of inadequacy can break even the most motivated persons among us. Top it all off with a generous topping of impostor syndrome, and And when this situation persists, the anxiety and depression can become chronic.
One obvious solution is improving the work-life balance among graduate students. Of the graduate students who experienced moderate to severe anxiety, 56% did not agree that their work-life balance was ‘good’, versus 24% who did. Among graduate students with depression, more than half (55%) did not agree with the statement (21% agreed).
Proper (or improper) mentorship is another aspect that can impact a graduate student’s mental health. Among the respondents with anxiety or depression, only half agreed that their immediate mentors provided “real” mentorship. Similar results were reported to questions that assessed whether advisors provided support or positively impacted the students’ emotional mental well-being.
Evans and colleagues wrote in their study that one important study limitation is that students suffering from anxiety and depression may be biased, in the sense that they are particularly motivated to take part in the survey. This may have skewed the results but even if only one in four grad students is depressed, that’s still a clear sign that something is wrong. She adds that universities need to recognize the problem and provide students with the necessary training and support in order to help them manage their time and cope with stress.
“Our results show that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population,” the authors wrote. “It is only with strong and validated interventions that academia will be able to provide help for those who are traveling through the bioscience workforce pipeline.”