According to a recent study conducted by Ghent University in Belgium,
one in two PhD students experience ‘psychological distress’, whilst a
third are at risk of developing depression or another common psychiatric
The research also suggests that the prevalence of mental health
issues in PhD students is far higher than in the general highly educated
Results showed that 32% of the 3659 students involved were
at risk of developing a disorder, which was more than double the number
of the highly educated control groups.
Most commonly, symptoms involved feeling under constant strain, being
unhappy, and losing sleep because of worry. However, the work and
organisational context were significant predictors of PhD students’
mental health. Balancing work with family commitments, high job demand,
and low job control were associated with increased symptoms.
However, having an inspirational supervisor with a good leadership
style was associated with decreased symptoms. The authors of the study
wrote: “When people have a clear vision of the future and the path that
they are taking, this provides a sense of meaningfulness, progress and
control, which should be a protective factor against mental health
Although the sample was small, and 90% of the students involved were
studying science or a social science, this comes in light of increasing
prevalence of mental health issues in academia. A study conducted by the
University of California, Berkeley, suggests that 47% of PhD students
scored at least 10 out of 30 on the scale to be considered depressed.
Co-author of the study, Katia Levecque of Ghent University, said she
would expect the results of a similar study to be much worse in the UK,
where fees are higher and grants are lower.
Nathan Vanderford, an assistant dean for academic development at the
University of Kentucky, wrote: “The study underscores what has long been
presumed; that work conditions and career outlook plays a key role in
the mental state of PhD trainees. Institutions, departments and PIs have
long ignored the systemic mental health issues among PhD trainees.”
research suggests that mental health across universities needs to be
better addressed. In 2016, a YouGov survey found that 21% of UK students
did not find their university’s mental health services to be adequate.
Earlier this year, students at Oxford University were labelled as the
most unhappy in the UK by a study conducted by Sodexo. It found that
22% of students at both Oxford University and Oxford Brookes regretted