It is no secret that completing a PhD is a trying experience. Most people know we are close to broke, and slaves to our labs/supervisors – I mean, there is a reason why people ask you why you’re doing a PhD (instead of earning $100k+ out in the ‘real world’). Anxiety, depression, stress, panic attacks, alcoholism, eating and sleep disorders, and self-harm (sometimes suicide) are the side-effects of doing a PhD for many candidates. From the many articles that have come across my Facebook feed, I gather more people are beginning to understand the cost of the PhD experience on candidate’s mental health. But, what is being done on the frontline to combat this silent epidemic?
At my university, there is a four times higher instance of PhD candidates seeking the counselling service than other students. And at UC Berkley, 50% of self-reported suicide attempts were from STEM graduate students. There are many articles, and many statistics (Nature, Quartz, The Guardian, UC Berkley). But, as I tell my students, we have to focus on the solutions.
The biggest solution is a culture change, in many aspects. The stigma surrounding mental health problems is huge – “they aren’t good enough”, “they’re not tough enough”, “they just can’t hack it”, “they’re too emotional/not built for research” are actual phrases I have heard academics describe students experiencing mental illnesses. With these attitudes students are unlikely to disclose their problems to their supervisors, and if they are isolated as so many PhD candidates are, they are unlikely to seek help elsewhere. So, number one: supervisor training on talking about/dealing with mental health/acting like a human capable of empathy.
Still on culture, I think peer interaction is incredibly important. At the end of the last year part of my department moved into an open-plan office in a refurbished building. With about 40 PhD candidates in an open-plan office, I know the names of approximately a quarter, and have only met/talked to one new person in 6 months. SIX MONTHS! This is because the culture in my building was not established as friendly and inclusive. Whilst open-plan is supposed to be great, with a tea room next to people’s desks, which can only comfortably seat four people, and when there are continuous noise complaints, with no break-out or meeting room space, I am not surprised that I haven’t met many new people. Add in that we are all busy, and sometimes have to navigate supervisor politics (who collaborates with who, who we need to stay away from), a collegial environment is not encouraged. The one person I have met and connected with, however, has been invaluable. We have both has interesting PhD experiences (you know what I am talking about!), and she has actually said to me that she is so glad she talks to me as she feels less alone! For all I know, the other ¾ of my office could be going through the same struggles but without the networks. So, number two: developing positive peer-networks that help combat isolation and increase student support (and no, I don’t mean more cocktail/bar nights).
Along with culture, structural changes are paramount. I have had this conversation on many occasions: in my department, there is no-one actually checking in on students to see how we are going. We fall between the cracks. Each year, we complete an annual report which is sent directly to our supervisor. Regardless of whether your issues stem from your supervisory relationship or not, you are unlikely to use this as a mechanism through which to gain support, particularly as it is well known these reports are never read properly. I know that we are adults, and independence is supposed to be what we do best, but when it comes to mental health, should it really be left up to the person struggling the most to locate and then seek help? If the issue is so well known, why are universities not being more proactive? So, number three: establish a CONFIDENTIAL and helpful service that checks in on all PhD candidates every 3 months. This way, you will hopefully catch students before it’s too late.
My university has resources such as a mindfulness program, a walking program, and a free university counselling center. I count myself as someone who is pretty switched on when it comes to their mental health, and I have experienced anxiety and depression throughout my PhD, but had never sought these long-standing services. I did, a few months ago (once the worst was over, which is ironic), go to a self-care workshop where I met another student from across campus who I now have coffee catch ups with – oh, look at that! Building strong peer networks. How would have thought that would help!