Have you ever experienced lack of sleep or loss of attention since you started your PhD? Have you ever thought you’re not good enough and research is something not for you? Or maybe, did you ever got to the point of having such obsessive thoughts about your work that prevents you from disconnecting?
If you answer is a YES, it’s possible that you might have suffered from mental health issues at some point of your academic career. If that is the case, don’t worry (in excess). The next lines will show that you are no weirdo in the academia, and that much of these feelings are part of the PhD journey. Surprise!
It’s not just you!
According to recent studies, evidence shows that 40% of PhD students suffer from anxiety and depression in some part of their doctoral process and even more, they are six times more likely to develop such conditions (Evans et al., 2019) than the regular population. On top of this, 80% of researchers between 25 and 35 years old have thought about leaving their job at some point in time.
These numbers are far from being a coincidence; in fact, the environmental conditions provide most times a perfect scenario for this type of pathology to emerge.
Put simply, universities tend to be very hierarchical institutions where dependence on the next person in the pyramid is very high.
This fact, added to the pressure to publish, academic excellence, and social responsibility, makes burnout rates in this environment higher than the average in other sectors.
In addition, many of the students in the early stages of their academic career do not have the perception of support from the institution.
Specifically, predoctoral contracts are sometimes precarious, and the resources available to carry out research and innovative teaching activities are very limited. Not only this, but also lack of knowledge of the administrative processes is also sometimes perceived as an additional barrier for researchers.
Ok…but, how can this information help me in understanding my situation?
When all these factors are combined together, they can be a real Molotov cocktail, or what is technically known as PERCEIVED PROLONGED STRESS.
That’s it, isolated challenges could be faced easily, but when we are exposed continuously to those challenges, the story is a different one. Continuous exposure may explain some of the most prominent symptoms, such as potential frustration, diminished self-confidence, or even apathy. However, your continued stress has a collective and contextual explanation (Figure 1).
Perceived stress is explained by the relationship between the demands of the job and the resources at work. Within the demands we could include the workload, the pressure to publish, the loneliness of the researcher, the relationship with the supervisor, or whatever the stressor you may identify from your personal perspective.
Regarding the resources side of the balance, we could include the presence of feedback and recognition, perceived social support, the match with the institution where we word, and accompaniment. In short, all the positive reinforcements that either within the world of academia or outside will encourage us to continue with our project.
It’s easy! The counterbalance between our resources and demands will show which is our level of perceived stress!
How can I detect mental health issues in my daily life?
Well, there are different signals that, when activated, inform us that we are exposed to a high level of perceived stress. This can be the first step to try to find a solution. These alarms can manifest themselves at different levels. For example, within the behavioral symptoms we can highlight absenteeism, substance abuse, distant interpersonal relationships, or decreased contact with colleagues.
On an emotional level, it is logical that in these circumstances coincide with anguish, irritability, mood swings, anxiety, or lack of motivation. All this can also have psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches, back pain, gastric and intestinal disorders, insomnia or weight loss.
In light of these circumstances, what is the academy doing?
So far, there is an implicit acceptance by academicians that the PhD process “is how it is”, with its pluses and minuses, challenges and rewards, and is something that everyone goes through. This explains a normalized high tolerance in academic life to undergo intense work and intellectual demands. However, some students that finally abandoned the doctoral program before culminating the process argue, “To what extent should I compromise my well-being to achieve this professional project?”
This reflection sparks some provoking thoughts that encourage the academia to reconsider its role. Basically, do we, the academic community, simply accept these conditions, and take them for granted in the PhD’s development, because “we all go through that”?
If these concerns are generally acknowledged, would it not be time to open a broader discussion about mental stressors in academia and even more, measures to addressing them?
Although the desirable change would be at a structural level, many small people, doing small things can change the world. So, what small initiatives can we include in our teams, at the office or department to mitigate the risks and effects of mental health issues?
What to do now?
Becoming aware of how we live the PhD process helps us increase those work resources we were mentioning and, in short, to have a little more information (and control) over our situation. Besides, isn’t it relieving to think that we are not the only ones in this path? Of course, that has nothing to do with rejoicing in other people’s misfortune but hearing that many others are in the same situation makes us feel understood.
That’s why, with this post, we want to give visibility to mental health concerns, and simply sow doubt about the status quo and future directions to take. Are you curious about the level of stress you may experience? Test your depression level in the next link: https://ifightdepression.com/en/selftest
Although there is no magic formula, there are little tricks that will help you cope with this situation (or at least survive till the end of the journey ;)).
Stay tuned and don’t miss the next post for some of them!