A study assessing the mental health of 2,279 PhD and master’s students from around the world has brought new attention to a pressing issue: For many, the pursuit of an advanced degree takes an emotional toll, as reported online on 6 March in Nature Biotechnology.
Other recent studies have documented widespread mental distress among graduate students, but the high rates suggested by the this study are still alarming, says Teresa Evans, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and the study’s lead author. She notes that students suffering from anxiety or depression may have been especially motivated to take the survey, which could have skewed the results. But she believes the findings still underscore the seriousness of the problem and the need for a response. “Our results, as well as the outpouring of personal stories and support for future investigations, indicate that a tipping point has been reached,” she says.
Echoing the findings of the 2017 Nature Graduate Survey, Evans and colleagues found that advisers and principal investigators (PIs) had a large impact on the success and well-being of graduate students. About half of the students who were anxious or depressed disagreed with the statements that their PI or adviser “provides mentorship” or “provides ample support.” Only about one-third agreed with those statements.
Evans says that PIs don’t necessarily have to add the role of emotional counselor to their list of duties, but says that they should receive training that can help them to detect when their trainees need professional help. “They need to understand how to point junior lab members in the general direction of care,” Evans says.
The survey also found that more than half of depressed or anxious students disagreed with the statement “I have a good work-life balance,” a clear sign that the demands of their graduate programme add to their distress. Evans says that many students could benefit from basic training to help them manage their time and cope with stress. “That’s low-hanging fruit, but it’s essential to making a difference,” she says.
Katia Levecque, an industrial-relations specialist at Ghent University in Belgium who has studied mental-health issues among university students, says that many outstanding questions remain. The mental-health field is still waiting for a large-scale scientific survey that could truly measure the prevalence of emotional problems in this population. “We don’t yet have the evidence that there’s a mental health crisis,” she says. Still, she says, there’s plenty of reason to believe that something needs to be done for the sake of the students and for the workplaces of the future. “People are suffering and dropping out,” she says. “I’m not sure we can wait to take action.”
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.