The Sorrows of a Young Researcher – The Mental Health Crisis in Academia

4 mins read

By Jonas Reichert

Concerns about mental health in academia, especially among young researchers, are rising in universities all across the western world. Depressive disorders and anxiety disorders are becoming ever more common diagnoses. Many studies published in the last few years offer an alarming picture. The problem has to be addressed as it causes tremendous suffering for individuals and also damages the research itself. But in a highly competitive environment where mental health issues are still partly stigmatized, that might be a difficult task. 

The very scale of the problem is difficult to assess. It is difficult to diagnose mental illnesses, as they are typically lacking clear diagnostic criteria and empirically measurable symptoms. Academic personnel also might fear that a diagnosis could negatively affect their career and could, therefore, be less cooperative. Evans et al. conducted a study of more than 2,200 graduate students in 2018 and found that 39 percent exhibited clinical signs of depression and 41 percent of anxiety. Female students were more likely than male students to be affected. Besides, more than half of the students identifying themselves as transgender were affected. The numbers are not exact and vary, but as the prevalence seems to be an order of magnitude higher than in the general population, it can surely be seen as an epidemic. Other studies, like a study among Belgian PhD students published in 2017 and one at the University of Arizona published in 2015, support this result as well.

Stress might be the most common feeling among postgraduate students, as they have to adapt to life as full-time professionals and often lack the necessary support mechanisms. The setting is very competitive as they compete for attention in the form of publications and citations which are defining for their future career. Additional work for the supervisor of the postgraduate students seems normal and therefore a typical working week can have 50 hours and more, while financial insecurity adds further to this stress. PhD students often do not get a full-time position and therefore earn much less than their colleagues in the private economy with similar qualifications.

Most faculties still lack sufficient support mechanisms. They might either not be aware of the problem, or they do not have the resources needed. But even if there are support mechanisms, they are often not used. The stigma connected with mental health problems is still large. Mental health problems are seen as a sign of weakness and inability to cope with the workload – or are at least perceived so by affected people. While this is not the reason, this disincentivizes the search for help, especially in a setting where graduate students are dependent on temporary positions and the goodwill of their supervisors.

Also, the supervisors are seldom trained in dealing with students and their problems being selected by academic success, not by their ability to manage and lead students. They often have similar problems as they have to fit their graduate students in between administrative work, the procurement of third-party funds and their research. Feeling ill-prepared for the job and even fearing career damage if they spend too much time supporting students instead of generating publications, many shy away from helping their students. Being part of the same system as their students, many supervisors suffer from problems of their own. Burnout and other mental problems are widespread among senior researchers, which are therefore often unable to effectively support their students.

The consequences are widespread. On the one hand, it causes tremendous suffering for all affected. Depressions and anxiety disorders have a serious negative impact on the quality of a person’s life. The negative health impacts of stress and other symptoms can cause long-term damages. In some cases, affected persons commitment suicide.

On the other hand, it also damages scientific progress. People suffering from high pressure might be more prone to make mistakes. The constant pressure for high-cited publications gives an incentive to exaggerate or even make up results and many talented young researchers are dragged out of academia and their genius is lost for research.

To fight back, there must first be awareness of the problem. The issue can be addressed inside the faculty, but also in the research community and through journals. A stronger dialogue can show people that they are not alone with these issues, which could help to reduce the barrier to reach out for help. 

Official offers of faculties could provide help or redirect to other institutions. A study by Bira et al. from 2019 proposes five components. Firstly, there should be training for young researchers, supervisors and other faculty staff, raising awareness, teaching strategies for coping with problems and also on how to support others. Secondly, there should be training for everyone taking part in mentorship programs to improve their quality and encourage help inside these structures. Thirdly, there should be a change in the faculties’ culture towards an environment that is more focused on individual well-being and support. Fourthly, there should be regular anonymous surveys among the staff to recognize problems early and enact countermeasures. Lastly, faculty funding should not only be rewarded for research output, but also the quality of education and the well-being of their staff.

As useful as all the measurements above might be, they do not address the real underlying problem: the current academic structure. As long as researchers are evaluated by their number of publications, their number of citations and their amount of third-funding, there will be no good research culture. Scientific progress is not measurable in simple numbers – like the output of an automobile factory – but was treated that way for the last decades. Another research culture might be possible, but this would require greater independence of third-party funding for researchers, and young scientists would need to be evaluated by their talents and curiosity instead of their ability to billow up results and divide them in as many papers as possible. Research has to be seen as art again instead of business. That would create real innovation and healthier people.

Illustration: Anna Belia

Jonas Reichert is an exchange student from Heidelberg in the south of Germany, where he does a degree in Physics. Besides his interests in life outside Earth, he can be found on most times in debating tournaments. In Sweden he tries to figure out how to bake and how to survive the winter.

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