Monday, July 15, 2013

Grad School Blues

A few years back UC Berkeley did a study of the mental health of graduate students.  The results were quite astounding.

The study found that 67% of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54% felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10% said they had considered suicide (note that in the graph below shows considering suicide "frequently" or "all the time", thus the percentage difference).  Female respondents were more likely to report feeling hopeless, exhausted, sad, depressed, or suicidal. By comparison, an estimated 9.5% of American adults suffer from depressive disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Less than 2% of graduate students surveyed said they would first contact a mental health provider or a member of the faculty to discuss an emotional or stress-related problem.  While 52% of survey participants reported that they considered using psychological or counseling services provided by the university, less than 30% actually reported using these services.  Almost 25% of graduate students in the survey were unaware of on-campus mental health services. 

Female students reported receiving less attention from their academic advisors and were also less statistfied with these interactions than their male counterparts.  Therefore not only are female students experiencing more mental health issues, they have less contact (and therefore support) from their advisors, or their interactions are less satisfying.


One of the major conclusions of the study was that graduate students as a group are a population at high risk for mental health concerns. The level of stress for graduate students is magnified by their relative isolation from the broader components of campus life, the intense academic pressures of their advanced studies, and the increased presence of family and financial obligations.  The fact that women are getting less attention from their advisors and also have a higher self reported mental health problems means that this population is especially at risk.

I wanted to highlight the fact that graduate students experience mental heath problems at a much higher rate than the general population to raise awareness of the magnitude of this problem. Everyone in graduate departments -- whether it be students, staff, or faculty -- should be aware of the prevalence of mental health issues and the overall reluctance for people to seek help.  Everyone should know what resources are available at their institutions, and include mental health issues as part of the conversation with their students, peers, and classmates.


13 comments :

Caroline Simpson said...

The caveat here is that the entire study (of all UC students) found that compared to students at other (comparison) institutions, UC students "are presenting mental health issues with greater frequency and complexity." And this graduate study was solely of Berkeley students. While I think this is informative and should be a wake-up call, I think it is dangerous to generalize these (dismaying) statistics to other programs.

Diego said...

"nearly 10% said they had considered suicide"? This isn't true. Figure 1 shows a different percentage.

Jessica Kirkpatrick said...

A study at UC Irvine, found similar results: http://www.grad.uci.edu/cascade/forms/current-student/SurveyResultsJS.pdf

Jessica Kirkpatrick said...

Diego,
If you look at the pdf of the study, the text for Figure 9 says: "the percent of respondents reporting experience with surveyed emotions either 'frequently' or 'all the time'"

Whereas the 10% number is people who said they considered suicide "at least once in the past year". Thus this number would be higher than what is shown in the histogram.

Michael Busch said...

"graduate students experience mental heath problems at 6-7 times the frequency of the general population"

This is not quite true. NIMH numbers are that ~26% of US adults meet the diagnostic criteria for some mental disorder in any given year. The "6-7 times" number for graduate students applies specifically to depressive disorders.

This does not change the magnitude of the problem, or the need for better recognition and support.

Jessica Kirkpatrick said...

Good point Michael, I'll modify the post.

awisblog said...

We as scientists love to point out the flaws in studies like these and in the writing of the blog post because we want to make sure that everything is clear. But let's not forget the bigger point here. Grad students need some help -- they're a sect of society that gets overlooked, but boy does something need to be done! I think individual universities, departments, and advisors need to develop appropriate programs or be more aware of what's happening. Sometimes all that's needed is more postive reinforcement and less of a "this should've been done yesterday" mentality to improve conditions.

Lee J Rickard said...

The worst thing about grad school for me happened afterwards, when I realized that that was when I was happiest. Between finishing the qualifiers and starting the heavy work writing the thesis, it was - compared to everything since - an idyll in the academy.

I wonder if much of the hopelessness now isn't because things are worse than before, but rather because they are no better. The academy has done a lousy job responding to women, both as students and as faculty. The academy has done a lousy job responding to students in general. And instead of learning how to treat them as humans, it has now extended the non-human definition to postdocs and adjuncts. So things are as bad as they were before, but for more people.

Anonymous said...

Regarding your comment that female students receive less attention from their advisors, it's worth noting that the text of the report points out that female graduate students covered by the studey are proportionally more often in master programs rather than Ph.D. It seems reasonable to expect that master degree students (regardless of sex) would receive less attention than Ph.D. students.

Rosemary Mardling said...

aI suspect these results represent the state of many physics and astronomy departments around the world, and probably go quite a way to explaining why many women choose not to continue in academia after their graduate studies. Understanding why grad students (both men and women) are suffering so much angst and doing something to improve the situation should have the flow-on effect of increasing the number of women staying in academia. The way things are now, the system selects for those who are `tough enough' to swim instead of sink, and that surely throws away some brilliant talent (both scientific and people-skilled) of both genders.

Anonymous said...

"Psychological or counseling services" do not constitute a magic bullet. I once went to see a campus psychologist when I was in grad school, and was essentially told that there couldn't possibly be anything wrong with me since I hadn't suffered some major traumatic event (like rape). Never mind that depression after, say, the death of a spouse is normal, while depression with no external cause is, you know, part of the definition of the mental disorder.

That particular guy was an idiot... but he was what was available to me at this particular large, well-known state school. I don't want to discourage people from seeking professional help, but don't expect it to fix everything. (And particularly for those of us in the hard sciences, you may be more comfortable with a psychiatrist than a psychologist. There is so much BS nonsense still in the mental health field, and it seems to be concentrated in the PhD psychologists, rather than the MD psychiatrists.)

Jackie said...

Looking back at this post, just realized the date of the study was 2006. May I ask if any discussion in particular caused this to resurface?

Jessica Kirkpatrick said...

Jackie,
The topic of mental health and academia is something that I find quite interesting, and wanted to write about. It wasn't something that had been previously discussed on this blog, so I thought it might be of interest to our readers.

I couldn't find more recent studies than the 2006 one, which is why I highlighted those results. Although there is also a 2008 UC Irvine study that has less statistics, but has similar findings:
http://www.grad.uci.edu/cascade/forms/current-student/SurveyResultsJS.pdf