Mental Health in Academic Research – A Systematic Problem

“In recent years, a crisis has been building in academia,” says this post on Polygeia. University counseling services report increasing demand due to rising  numbers of students with serious and complex mental health problems. From what we’ve either seen or heard from colleagues, mental health problems are very common in academia, but it is surprisingly difficult to find hard data to back this claim, especially since open discussion of these topics is socially discouraged in lab environments. A recent report that came out of Berkeley last year points to 47% of PhD and 37% of masters students scoring as depressed. While these numbers are estimates and not clinical diagnoses, the few studies available in peer-review journals produced numbers of a similar scale. In an UK study, mental health issues among academics were estimated as high as 53%, while an Australian study found that mental illness among academic staff was three to four times higher than the national average. These numbers have to be handled and reported with care, but they are really concerning and point out that this issue needs to be urgently addressed.

So if a proportion of us working in academia experience mental health issues, why are not more people talking about it? You’ll be as surprised as we were to find that people are indeed talking about it. The Guardian has published three (scream-yes-at-your-computer-because-you-agree) excellent articles on the topic. The first one was a blog post on the Guardian Higher Education Network that criticized a “culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia”. Indeed, it was an unprecedented response to this article, pointing to high levels of distress among academics, that lead to this one outlining possible reasons for why mental health problems are on the rise among UK academics, and another one to provide tips and resources for those needing help. Due to some online comment-based criticism this article received, a follow up made clear that such “stories are not cries of the privileged”, and that such a marginalization of mental health problems among academics does not only hurt the ones suffering, but also hinders a long needed discussion about mental health issues in society as a whole.

And people at the Guardian (thank you guys!) aren’t the only ones being brave enough to talk about the issues that still often face stigmatisation in our society. Dr. Nadine Muller in the humanities has an entire section in her blog titled, “Academia and Mental Health.” Michael D Plant from here at Oxford wrote a brave, personal and non-anonymous account of his battle with depression.  You can go through the guardian articles, the Berkeley study, and Dr. Muller’s blog and find countless personal tales, mostly anonymous, of people who have battled it through the system. Some coming in are already predisposed to issues in mental health, others not so. The underlying trend in all of these stories seems to be the enormous pressure faced by trainees in academia, coupled with a lack of support, mentorship, and accountability in the mentors, departments, and universities.

Both the US and UK recognize the huge restructuring that needs to happen in scientific academia if it is to remain sustainable in the near future and suggest solutions to the systemic problems. In her article, “How to Build a Better PhD,” Julie Gould acknowledges “we need to transform graduate education within five years. It’s imperative.” But while all three of these articles cite different solutions to the problems that plague the industry, none mention the problem of mental and emotional health in both trainees and established academics, even in those sections that acknowledge the need for a restructuring of the training systems and investment in people. Also interesting to note is that there is always a mention of the system’s or trainee’s (mainly in expectations) flaws, but never of the trainer’s, despite countless suggestions (see the Berkeley article) by trainees that PIs and mentors are in dire need of management courses.

The lack of institute acknowledgement of mental health issues comes as no surprise, as there are few studies which point to the numbers affected, as outlined in an article in the New Scientist, and science policy is driven by numbers. And having data is incredibly important, as this blog post by Dr. Dorothy  Bishop shows us. Misinterpreting the data or only telling one side of the story for the sake of a cause, whatever that cause may be, only damages it more than it helps. And because we are not social scientists, we can only call on an increase in sampling and public release of the data that exists out there on the emotional well-being of scientists and academics so that real change can come along and accountability be included into our culture.

I doubt we will ever see any paper calling for an actual change in policy that affects the culture of how we do science. It should also not surprise us that the people writing these articles, however well-intentioned they may be, are all established academics who went through the training process in a different era and culture. Though science trainees may be heard (in places such as the Berkeley survey and others run in academia across the world) we are not necessarily being listened to, and those on top are reluctant to bring about any significant change at the individual or cultural level. This causes a hopelessness towards real change that goes along with feelings of depression. Many are the stories we have heard of overly frustrated graduate students and Postdocs whose voices are lost amidst the “support figures” and committees which remain largely (pardon the pun) non-committal to the graduate’s well-being.

There is much to be said and much to be discussed about this topic and all the factors that feed into it. We hope that in the coming months we can gather enough resources and ideas from people to bring about measurable change. In other sectors, psychologists have long known that happy, emotionally-invested people make for the most creative and productive people. So while we would be happy promoting emotional well-being for its own sake, we hypothesize that academic science should be no different, and that investing in happy, involved, and amazed trainees (which we all are at the start!) will benefit the labs, institutes, and funding bodies too.

And if you’re someone who has been struggling with your post-graduate experience, the one thing we can tell you for sure is that you are not alone.

Co-authored by Juan Pablo Ruiz 

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Malte Kaller

Malte Kaller is currently reading for a DPhil in Neuroscience. His research focuses on how experience and learning can shape brain structure and function. He has a broad interest in mental health, psychology and politics and volunteers as a trained peer-supporter in his college.

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