Mental health in academia

From The Embassy of Good Science

Mental health in academia

What is this about?

Pressures to excel, obtain grants and funding and publish in prestigious journals can take its toll on even the most resilient academics. Concerns about mental health in the academic community have increased in the last couple of years, particularly those concerns regarding the mental health of doctoral students and early-career researchers.

Why is this important?

Different research has shown that the prevalence of depression among doctoral students in the US is high [1], along with an increased risk for other psychiatric disorders, when compared to other highly educated groups. One in two PhD students experiences psychological distress[2]. These problems often result from organizational change, increased workload, the rise in short term contracts, budget cuts, increased competition, and academic culture of ‘publish or perish’[3][4]. Mental health problems include burnout, depression, anxiety and emotional exhaustion. This could impact the quality and number of published articles, influence the organizational climate of research teams, and lead to fewer students completing their PhDs [5].

  1. Panger G. Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report 2015.
  2. Levecque K, Anseel F, De Beuckelaer A, Van der Heyden J, Gisle L. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy. 2017;46(4):868-79.
  3. Petersen AM, Riccaboni M, Stanley HE, Pammolli F. Persistence and uncertainty in the academic career. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2012;109(14):5213.
  4. Biron C, Brun JP, Ivers H. Extent and sources of occupational stress in university staff. Work (Reading, Mass). 2008;30(4):511-22. Epub 2008/08/30.
  5. Levecque K, Anseel F, De Beuckelaer A, Van der Heyden J, Gisle L. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy. 2017;46(4):868-79.

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

This is still a novel area of research. Official advice and policies regarding the prevention of mental health problems in academia is lacking. However, previous research has established connections between organizational climate and health [1]. Suggested actions to combat the rise of mental health problems in academia include raising awareness, creating more dialogue, providing training on mental health and emotional wellness, effective mentoring practices, monitoring mental health via anonymous surveys, and providing free counseling sessions for those marked as symptomatic or at high-risk. What should also be considered is the need to establish official policies that reward researchers not just for their scientific output and ability to obtain funding, but also for their educational, mentoring and “wellness” practices. [2]

  1. Levecque K, Anseel F, De Beuckelaer A, Van der Heyden J, Gisle L. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy. 2017;46(4):868-79.
  2. Bira L, Evans T, Vanderford N. Mental health in academia: An invisible crisis - The Physiological Society [Internet]. The Physiological Society. 2019 [cited 27 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.physoc.org/magazine-articles/mental-health-in-academia-an-invisible-crisis/

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