1 in 3 Ph.D. students develop a psychiatric disorder

May 12, 2017 Providence Health Team

When people hear the phrase “psychiatric disorder” during a conversation with their doctor, they may feel as much shame as they do worry. Mental illness, partnered with its stigma, cuts across all social lines and can affect even society’s healthiest high achievers. Many would be surprised to learn that at least half of all college students report having anxiety or depression, with the number of cases growing every year. Now, a recent study has shown that even Ph.D. students are feeling the strain – with one out of three at risk of a psychiatric disorder, such as clinical depression.

Researchers at Ghent University in Belgium surveyed more than 3,000 Ph.D. students at universities in Flanders and found that mental health problems are more common among Ph.D. students than in the rest of the higher education students with whom they live and work.

Like many college students, half of the study group had reported experiencing at least two symptoms of psychological distress in recent weeks; but nearly a third of the group indicated at least four symptoms, which was more than twice the rate among the comparison groups. These symptoms included:

  • Feeling unhappy and depressed
  • A sense of being under constant strain
  • Losing sleep
  • Not being able to enjoy day-to-day activities

Symptoms worsened when students felt unable to meet work demands, had little control over their job, or had difficulty balancing work with family needs.

A sense that one is failing to meet expectations, or isn't mentally ‘strong enough' to handle work and stress, is acutely felt among high achievers, which may, in turn, prevent them from seeking help. However, the authors of the study emphasize that Ph.D. students should be encouraged to take care of themselves better, and reach out to others if they feel overwhelmed.

“Mental health problems can develop into serious threats to one’s well-being and career, and can have detrimental consequences in the long term,” says Katia Levecque, co-author of the study. She adds that for students who don’t get professional help, they can at least “seek help in your personal environment, even if you think it’s probably a temporary thing.”

Additionally, the authors note that Ph.D. students tend to fare better when they have an appreciation of the benefits of their chosen career and have the support of an “inspirational” supervisor. “When people have a clear vision of the future and the path that they are taking, this provides a sense of meaningfulness, progress and control, which should be a protective factor against mental health problems,” the authors explained.

So for Ph.D. students—or their parents—who are surprised to learn that even people highly successful in their education can experience mental health issues, the message is “you are not alone.”

If you are feeling overwhelmed by anxiety or depression, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help. You can find a doctor in our provider directory.

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About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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