Pulling back the curtain: Mental health in academia

Hidden away in student bars and coffee shops are over-caffeinated graduate students, stuck in a culture that desperately needs repair and reconfiguration. 

 Illustration by Ash Melford

Illustration by Ash Melford

Both anecdotal accounts and documented studies are emerging to reveal a dark side to the pursuit of academic perfection. Escalating stress and pressure, poor work/life balance, depression, sleep disorders, substance abuse problems and eating disorders have become hallmarks of academia. While increasing attention has been paid to mental health problems afflicting undergraduate students, issues among graduate students and early post-doctoral researchers are not only under-reported but largely ignored and stigmatised.  As the data and research mount, it’s important to delve deeper into this issue and ask not only how and why these issues have emerged, but how this dangerous trend can be reversed. 

Like most science PhD students, Lisa* is no stranger to the daily grind of long, endless experiments and stress working in her laboratory. While she had previously found inspiration in her work, over time she began to realise that her personal and social life was suffering. 

“I realised that in the first six months of my PhD, I was not in control of my own life anymore. Hobbies, friendships, and other personal relationships were a distant memory. I was in the lab most nights doing late night experiments and working all weekend. My sleeping pattern was all over the place, I wasn’t eating properly and I started to feel nervous and anxious on a daily basis,” Lisa said.

 
  Long hours in the lab means PhD students and post-graduate researchers give up much of their personal lives.   National Eye Institute/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Long hours in the lab means PhD students and post-graduate researchers give up much of their personal lives. National Eye Institute/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

“Instead of being rewarded for my hard work and dedication, I was told to work harder. Asking for a Saturday or Sunday off was met with wide-eyed stares and silence, with a colleague ‘subtly’ reminding me in a meeting that if I wanted to succeed as a PhD student and researcher giving up my life, friends, and family was a sacrifice that had to be made,” she said. “Of course I was prepared to work long hours, as I knew that I was committing to a career and life that didn’t consist of a nine to five schedule. However, as time passed I felt like I was being dragged unwillingly to the battle front lines, and forced to sacrifice my life for the benefit of my supervisor and lab.”     

Lisa isn’t alone in the issues she has expressed about her graduate program. The reality is that graduate students and post-doctoral researchers are considered to be the next generation of highly skilled professionals with analytical and communication skills, able to influence science, technology, policy, and the economy to the benefit of society. Despite this, research shows that while universities and institutes once nourished our next generation leaders, the last decade of large-scale organisational change, government funding cuts, and an increasingly grim job market has led to many graduate students feeling overworked and struggling psychologically.

Research carried out in Australia, the US and elsewhere has shown that large numbers of academics are overloaded, demoralised and depressed. Many are suffering from insomnia and disorientation, as well as physical illnesses related to workplace stress. A 2002 survey of 8,732 Australian university academics found approximately 50% of those interviewed were at risk of psychological illness, compared to 19% of the Australian population overall. Since then, the situation seems to have worsened. A 2014 Guardian survey of academics, ranging from Vice Chancellors to PhD candidates, reported 80% of the more than 2,500 respondents suffered from anxiety. The survey also showed that almost 35% suffered from depression and did not suffer from psychological illness prior to the commencement of their studies in academia. A 2014 report from the University of California, Berkeley also found that 60% of graduate students felt overwhelmed, exhausted, hopeless, sad, or depressed nearly all the time. One in 10 said they had contemplated suicide in the previous year. 

 
  Changes in university structure and funding leave graduates unsupported.   anna gutermuth/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Changes in university structure and funding leave graduates unsupported. anna gutermuth/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

Distressingly, these statistics are rarely reported, while the PhD life of overnight experiments, missing meals, lack of sleep, and stress is praised. It’s common for advisors, mentors, and colleagues to reduce serious mental health concerns to a simple case of ‘PhD or post-doctoral blues’ to avoid the perpetual elephant in the room. Whether it’s spending lonely nights in the library or laboratory, worrying about funding for their training or finishing dissertations – constant stressors are always in the back of graduate and post-doctoral researchers’ minds.  

It is clear from the published and anecdotal accounts that by the time a graduate student enters the workforce creativity and motivation are lost, productivity suffers, and feelings of inadequacy grow. At the academic level, the pressure is further increased as staff are expected to fulfil multiple role demands and encouraged to multitask teaching, research, consultation, and supervising research students. Academics are also required to bring money into the university through research grants or publications, with their performance evaluated and funded by the federal government based on research productivity. With such high performance measures in place, it’s not surprising that the symptoms of academia are ones of fragmentation, competition and chronic distrust. 

Ironically, academics keenly research other groups of professionals, but rarely take time to study their own group. Self-reflection isn’t encouraged in academia, but instead undermined and replaced with a halo effect, which influences the ability to admit accountability. As the baton is passed from supervisor to student, the mental health issues are further exacerbated. This pattern not only threatens to influence the future of scientific progress, but the future of moral and social progress within the field. The question remains: What can be done to reverse this mindset that has embedded itself into academia?

 
  Academic culture is passed on from generation to generation.   U.S. Army RDECOM/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Academic culture is passed on from generation to generation. U.S. Army RDECOM/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

Honours and Postgraduate Administration Officer for the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Queensland (UQ), Fiona Parker, said steps are being taken to offer support to students when needed. “My role does involve basic counselling and guidance for students through their postgraduate studies. If a student contacted me to express feeling overwhelmed, stressed or intense pressure in their studies, I would recommend that they approach their advisor in the first instance,” Mrs Parker said. “If they don’t feel comfortable discussing with their advisor, they can request to meet with the Postgraduate Chair, or utilise the counselling and support services offered at UQ.”

Counselling services offered at universities are a good first step, but not enough to tackle the problem. As well as the more passive approach of supporting individuals once they have reached a state of distress, a preventative approach would best address the environment and culture.  One way of doing this is to establish a culture of open discourse within universities, with the scope to increase transparency. This would shift some of the focus toward supervisors, supporting them in having uncomfortable conversations with their students and post-docs and to encourage them to seek help if needed. “In my experience, positive outcomes can be achieved if all parties concerned are aware of a student who is experiencing any type of illness, as we can provide advice on how to best manage workload expectations and seek guidance from the graduate school to support a student’s candidature,” said Mrs Parker.

 
  The ability to have open conversations with advisors in the academic workplace will create a more supportive environment.   Marc Wathieu/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The ability to have open conversations with advisors in the academic workplace will create a more supportive environment. Marc Wathieu/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Another part of the solution is a clearer definition of roles. In many academic settings, an academic’s role evolves over time as they pick up additional responsibilities, leading to role ambiguity and overload. Defining an academic’s role more clearly will help to prevent this, and putting frequent checks in place will mean that unrealistic expectations are not encouraged or enforced among students, employees, and advisors. 

It’s also important to implement programs within graduate schools that aim to increase individual use of adaptive coping strategies, decrease use of maladaptive coping strategies, and increase experiences of positive emotions. This would enable enhanced levels of resilience to adapting more successfully when dealing with stressful situations.  

The reality is that the wellbeing of our researchers and academics should be paramount. Universities and laboratories need to combat this problem by increasing accountability when it comes to the culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia. While the sacrifices required to work in academia may be acceptable to some, the hindered quality of life could be enough to convince talented scientists to abandon academic endeavours.

*Pseudonym

Edited by Deborah Kane and Nicola McCaskill, and sponsored by Jacquie Milner