Acknowledging and dealing with mental health issues as a PhD

The exotic idiosyncrasies of topological insulators are fascinating and would no doubt prove fertile grounds to write this blog post. Nevertheless, I want to write about something more important and urgent for our generation of young scientist: Mental Health issues that many PhD students struggle with but seldom mention.  Graduate school is an exciting time as we, young scientists, work on the cutting edge of science, testing new and exciting ideas.  In striving for excellence, however, many of us struggle with balancing our academic and personal life like I have tried since I embarked on my academic career.

 

Constant high stress levels can severely affect our work, physical and emotional health and social life. There is a tacet understanding that PhD is difficult but like a boastful sleep deprived marine or medical intern on their 30th hour in the emergency ward, there is also an unhealthy culture discouraging many of us from speaking openly about our “weaknesses”. As a PhD student, job anxiety and high stress levels are seen as part of being an adult and having a responsible job. We do not want our colleagues with whom we are racing for publications to find out that we may not be doing so well personally. We meet them with confident bright faces hiding our ever looming fears of uncertain futures and failures inside.

 

In rare studies conducted in US and Belgium universities (see reference links at the end), up to 50% of graduate students from different academic fields were reported to be facing some form of mental health problem. Most of them reported one or more of the following:

  • low self-esteem
  • constantly feeling unhappy
  • being depressed
  • losing sleep because of anxiety
  • loss of appetite and concentration
  • feeling like they have poor control on their job and its progress
  • not being able to overcome difficulties
  • failing to enjoy day-to-day activities
  • low career optimism and feeling hopeless
  • feeling scared of making decisions
  • feeling low in energy levels
  • failing at maintaining a life-work balance

 

A big fraction admitted to having thought about suicide. This puts most of the PhD students at the risk of developing severe psychiatric problems. However, we tend to casually accept feeling depressed and constantly dealing with high levels of stress as part of “being a PhD”.

pic1

pic2
Figures taken from the berkeley report [http://ga.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/wellbeingreport_2014.pdf]
Although self reported data can be unreliable, particularly with respect to recall of activities over long time spans, it is still shocking to see two bimodel peaks at 2.5 and 5.7 hours on sleep on average and many students indicating high frequency of depressive symptoms.

 

I think a huge change can be made by just acknowledging that these are mental health issues that are not negligible and can be treated.  We really need to change our attitude towards how we look down upon our colleagues who confess about having a harder time than us. We tend to smirk at them thinking they are not as smart.

 

We need to realize that there can be many more complicated factors at play. For example:

  • having to support a family and larger financial pressures
  • starting PhD in a foreign country/group can be very intimidating. Other than adapting to a new culture, it may also involve relearning social roles and their hierarchies. For example, the role of a teacher/professor may be perceived very differently in different cultures.
  • female researchers may find themselves dealing with an implicit culture of misogyny where they might not only feel a larger pressure to prove themselves but also considerably lesser space to make mistakes. Consequently, they end up with depression, low self-esteem and the fraud syndrome.
  • lacking a social support network or friends
  • balancing research, paying bills and a personal life etc

 

We can perhaps learn from Martin Seligman’s theory of “Learned Helplessness” where animals with uncontrollable stress/punishments eventually gave up on even trying to solve their problems and showed much worse cognitive and social skills down the lane. We often feel helpless too when we can not control the results of our experiments or fail at doing the multiple tasks we have to manage simultaneously as a PhD student. Professors (or PIs) may well be very alien to these tumultuous events happening inside their students. Most of us will be afraid to take our PIs in confidence regarding these issues. However, many universities now offer psychological counselling and help. We should realize that our mere understanding can play a crucial role in helping someone deal with these problems. So, kindly support your PhD friends who are struggling and encourage them to get external support as they themselves may feel helpless or trapped in their own predicament.

 

[1] http://ga.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/wellbeingreport_2014.pdf

[2] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19325037.2013.764248#.UvEd27T_cX9

[3] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048733317300422

[4] http://www.postdocjournal.com/file_journal/614_91180693.pdf

 

By Aroosa Ijaz, PhD student at the Ensslin Nanophysics group at ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.

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