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New Study Reveals Half of All PhD Students Suffer from Psychological Distress

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PhD Students Suffer from Psychological Distress

Getting a PhD is no easy task. It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and mental focus. But this is not a secret. Before anyone decides to go for their PhD after undergrad, they usually have some idea of the amount of studying, time commitment, and lack of sleep that often go hand in hand with a doctorate degree. What future doctors may not understand, however, is the psychological effects they may experience when working toward their academic heights.

In recent years, studies have drawn a correlation between mental health issues and students in PhD programs. The pressure to succeed, and the consequences if you don’t, can take its toll on any student, let alone those engrossed in the highest level of coursework. Conditions such as depression and anxiety have led many grad students to seek counseling services, and some have even admitted to contemplating suicide.

According to a 2013 study, 29 percent of those who went to school for their PhD at that time were depressed, and 58 percent were facing mental health challenges. A year later, data from a report by the Graduate Assembly at the University of California, Berkeley, reported that of all of the PhD candidates on the school’s campus, 47 percent were considered depressed. Move to 2017, and the statistics regarding mental health in doctorate students are just as concerning.

Graduate Students and Mental Health Issues

According to a May 2017 study by Science Direct, a platform created by Elsevier that collects scholarly articles and research studies in technology, medical information, and science, 50 percent of students going to school for their PhD experience psychological distress. Someone is diagnosed with psychological distress when he or she has experienced at least two symptoms of poor mental health in recent weeks. What’s even more concerning is that one-third of PhD candidates are at a high risk of developing a mental health disorder, such as depression. These numbers are higher than those reported for both people who are highly educated and students in other higher-education programs.

Graduate Student

Common Psychological Symptoms Reported by PhD Students

Students experiencing psychological distress while studying in grad school may deal with a variety of common symptoms. Any combination of these makes it difficult to function at a person’s highest level, which can often add to the worry and burden felt by PhD students trying to meet all the expectations that are set for them, whether by their parents, professors, or other candidates studying beside them. Graduate student mental health issues are often recognized by the following symptoms:

  • Experiencing constant stress
  • Feeling consistently unhappy and depressed
  • Losing sleep because of anxiety
  • Trouble overcoming challenges
  • Lacking enjoyment in daily activities

Another common sign of psychological distress in PhD students is “imposter syndrome.” This is when a student doubts their strengths and doesn’t believe they are good enough to complete their education and become a doctor. They question their abilities and have difficulty accepting their successes. This leads many to view themselves as frauds who got to where they were because they were lucky, and, in turn, they suffer from constant worry that someone will find out they don’t belong in the program. The feeling of inadequacy and limited self-worth can be a trigger for the development of depression and anxiety disorders. In addition to these negative emotions, several characteristics of standard PhD programs can play a role in developing these mental disorders.

Contributing Factors for Depression and Anxiety in Graduate Students

Contributing Factors for Depression and Anxiety in Graduate Students

The context of work and the organization of most PhD programs are key factors in the development of graduate student mental health disorders. For starters, stress from various components of the degree process can be detrimental to a student’s overall health and mental wellbeing. According to the Science Direct research, these stressors may include any of the following:

  • Financial uncertainty/worry
  • The need/desire to achieve perfection
  • Large workload, which may interfere with family and social requests by eliminating a work-life balance
  • Meeting expectations of regular supervisor evaluations
  • A lack of support by peers or teachers
  • Intense competition with other candidates
  • Enduring high demands with little control as to how to achieve them
  • Uncertainty about the future, such as where to get funding for research and what comes after PhD school

Experiencing the weight of these scenarios can lead to emotional and mental exhaustion, low satisfaction, increased anxiety, and tension. Even if a PhD student doesn’t develop a psychiatric disorder, his or her mental health will likely be affected in some way. Most students experiencing college stress and the emotional challenges of a PhD program would benefit from some level of behavioral treatment.

Treatment for Graduate Students Seeking Psychological Help

The health care options available for PhD students, and even undergraduate students struggling with excessive college stress, usually include some form of therapy or counseling, and may include medication. For students who are uncomfortable with sharing their thoughts and feelings with others, one-on-one counseling is a great form of treatment. This allows a therapist to determine a personalized plan based on the student’s individual needs and challenges.

Treatment for Graduate Students Seeking Psychological Help

When a PhD student can benefit from the support of others who are having similar experiences, group therapy is an effective avenue for treatment. Many universities offer graduate student mental health support groups that meet regularly and are free to attend. This is a perfect setting for communicating concerns and getting advice from people who have been through it.

In either therapy option, anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications may be used in conjunction with counseling for more severe cases or symptoms that are difficult to manage.

Outpatient Programs for Stress and Depression in College Students

Another treatment option that combines multiple tactics to help relieve graduate student mental health issues is an intensive outpatient program. If you go to school near the Pasadena, California, area or are taking a leave of absence from your PhD program, the Graduate Student Intensive Outpatient Evening Program at Las Encinas Behavioral Health Hospital can provide the right kind of support for a student trying to cope with psychiatric distress. It combines group therapy, psychoeducation, and psychiatric services, and incorporates Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to teach participants how to manage stress, reduce emotional distress, and utilize coping skills while in a PhD program.

Las Encinas offers an additional program for any student experiencing college depression or anxiety that may include interventions within a hospital setting, partial hospitalization, or intensive outpatient care. The College Student Mental Health Program at our Pasadena center treats students with psychiatric conditions that require a greater level of care. Components of this program include individual and group therapy sessions, medication management, mental health education, detoxification (if necessary), and family support. All of these work together to reduce stress in college students and set them on the path to recovery.

Whatever form of treatment is obtained, getting help with the stresses of a PhD program is encouraged and often necessary. No graduate students should have to try to cope with the high expectations, cost, and workload of school on their own. Since research shows depression in college students and mental health issues in doctorate candidates are a growing reality, it’s important to offer support for those pushing themselves to their limit – both in intelligence and mental health.