Group Work

A Culture Change Is Coming to Campus

With nearly a third of PhD students at risk for mental health issues, Canadian schools are shifting attitudes and offering more support.

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Pursuing a PhD is hard (and it’s supposed to be) but when taking the next step to study at the graduate level, important consideration must be put towards an underlying factor that has only recently been gaining attention: mental health.

A recent study carried out by researchers from Ghent University has been gaining popularity and circulating through various social media outlets. It explores the prevalence of and factors that contribute to mental health problems in PhD students.

The authors state, “[a]lthough universities were traditionally regarded as low stress environments, research on occupational stress among academics indicates that [mental health issues are] alarmingly widespread and on the rise.” A staggering 32% of PhD students are at risk of having or developing common psychiatric disorders with many reporting symptoms of depression, anxiety, burnout and/or emotional exhaustion.

In terms of workplace environments, graduate school may seem idyllic: flexible schedules, the ability to freely pursue one’s intellectual interests as well as access to countless resources and intelligent people to further one’s academic ambitions. There are however, several unique challenges and circumstances within graduate level studies that result in what the authors describe as an “imbalance between the individual and the work environment, leading to stress”.

Many graduate students are faced with a great deal of uncertainty and doubt, as work is self-directed with ambiguous timelines and no clear expectations or milestones. In addition, there is severe competition for funding, an intense pressure to constantly publish as well as a limited number of available faculty positions and uncertainty surrounding alternative career paths.

All of these factors contribute to a Darwinian culture prevalent among graduate students, which forces people to hide their feelings of distress lest they be perceived as signs of weakness during what is considered a rite of passage. Understandably, the culmination of these factors leads to acute psychological distress.

The focus of this study is not to highlight the downside of pursuing a graduate degree but to generate awareness about the impact of graduate studies on mental health because open conversations will lead to action. As awareness builds and support systems are put in place, we can promote an environment of inclusiveness so that students feel comfortable asking for help. Fortunately, this is becoming more widespread.

The University of Toronto, for example, has established a mental health framework and various free programs for all students including mindfulness meditation and yoga classes, peer support groups and workshops as well as access to psychiatric counselors. The University of British Columbia’s mental health awareness club is set up to provide resources for students and create an environment where students, staff and faculty members can learn and discuss mental health issues together.

Furthermore, events such as Mindfest, a mental health and wellness fair, McGill University’s annual mental health awareness week, and the Canadian Mental Health Association’s mental health week aim to remove the stigma surrounding mental health by providing a platform for open communication and information on resources and services.

Despite these efforts, overcoming the factors that contribute to mental health issues in graduate students will not be easy. There is still the lingering mentality that a high intensity, elite environment will be at odds with cultivating individual well-being.

However the two do not have to be mutually exclusive. The more platforms we have available to talk about mental health and well-being, the less stigma will surround them and those affected. There is no better time than now to start a dialogue or find resources at your own institution, workplace or community to help yourself, a friend or family member.

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Victoria Corless is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto studying kinetically amphoteric molecules as building blocks for biologically active molecules and a recurring blog writer for the Royal Society of Chemistry. She is passionate about science and communicating new discoveries to enhance science literacy.