PhD’s & Mental Health Challenges – A Bond Which is Becoming Covalent
One person dies every 40 seconds from suicide, according to the World Health Organization. One in three people face mental health challenges during their lifespan, stressing the need for awareness and actions on this topic. This issue is also translating into an economic burden for countries across the globe due to reduced capacity of its population to perform on various parameters. In Europe alone, the estimated impact was calculated to be around €478 billion, covering both direct and indirect costs. The very rough estimates of these costs are mind-boggling.
Understanding how different challenges render various groups susceptible to mental health issues would be very interesting to understand, not only from a scientific, but also from an economic and social point of view. One interesting sub-group identified lately has been doctoral researchers across the world as the number of students opting for doctoral research is increasing dramatically. Data from 34 countries and over 17 years suggests the percentage of students opting for a PhD have doubled. My own co-supervisor, formerly an advanced Post-doc, had an interesting thought about research, suggesting it has changed from a hobby to a profession with the need to produce more outcomes. This aligns well with the concept of doctorate work, which requires a more intense, meticulous and structured approach in the current scenario rather than just a curiosity-driven way to tackle any problem with a scientific outlook.
With the increase in the number of doctoral researchers, the education system itself is yet to adapt to the growing number and increasing competition. This situation has led to many PhD’s going public about their mental health issues. According to a Nature survey of more than 5700 students worldwide, nearly 12% of them had reached out for professional help concerning mental health issues. There are additional reports suggesting that one in two PhDs are undergoing mental health distress. More studies and reports are expected in the future indicating mental health issues as a common phenomenon among PhDs.
There are various factors which could be listed that contribute to mental health challenges such as lab environment, financial insecurities, the balance between personal and professional life, future career instability and unavailability of support groups or peers to tackle these challenges. Manuela Schütze, who holds a PhD in neuroscience and has become a Mental Health Advocate in her networks,, sees one contributing aspect also in the principal investigators: “Supervisors of graduate students hardly receive proper training in leadership, conflict or time management which often leaves them overwhelmed in difficult situations, or unable to provide guidance. Some supervisors proactively participate in workshops and seminars to learn these skills, but as long as funding agencies and universities do not systematically evaluate mentorship, I’m afraid not much will change.” She continues: “Another problem I see in academia is that the most valued metric is the number of publications, which does not necessarily reflect a student’s ability, skills, talents, time or effort spent on a project.” In addition to these basic factors, increasing migration and visa challenges cause supplemental stress. Lack of adequate policies and awareness on this topic has worsened situations in many cases.
There is an increasing discussion on this topic suggesting a better awareness among students, supervisors and policy makers. Yet, taking concrete steps to tackle these challenges remains an outlook for most Universities and Institutes across the globe. Some of the possible ways to handle these challenges can include more dispersal of power to decide for a single thesis in terms of 2-3 supervisors, more financial scholarships in the final phases of the PhD process, adequate plans and inputs for experiments and back up strategies for a thesis, open discussions to remove fear, support on visa and migration policy changes and supporting PhDs with families. This topic needs a more careful watch in the coming years and inputs on actions to be taken by all stakeholders.
XPOMET© Medicinale is a concept designed to address the state of current and future health in an inclusive manner and showcasing technologies that could tackle those challenges. Mental Health is one such topic which requires sustained discussions between all of the interested groups and also at the level of students, PhD’s and early stage researchers. On a personal note, as doctorates will be one of the biggest workforces in the future, this topic requires more attention from the global community. Our efforts are aimed to bring this to attention, facilitate a dialogue and promote future collaborations.
Find more information about our speaker for the topic –
Neuroscientist and Clinical Psychologist.
Author Information – Dr Jubin Shah, Conference Head, XPOMET Innovation in Medicine GmbH
Dr Jubin Shah, designs the program and concept of XPOMET Medicinale. He scouts for topics of relevance for current and future health and matches them with people with the expertise for the topic.
Some Key References & Readings