Lauren Revie | 10 OCT 2019
Mental health is a hot topic at the moment – and it is about time. Around 1 in 6 adults will experience anxiety or depression (Mental Health Foundation, 2016), with the number of people recognising suicidal thoughts increasing drastically (McManus et al., 2016). However, as a response to this growing problem, we have also seen a rise in the formation and support for mental health charities and research into different mental health and psychiatric conditions. More and more people are beginning to talk about our mental health openly; how we feel, what is affecting our mental health, and seeking support for problems we might be experiencing. Mental health awareness and advocacy is gaining momentum, and everything *seems* to be heading the right way in working towards normalization of sharing our feelings, emotions and mental state.
But what about the researchers behind the mental health statistics and the breakthroughs? There is growing evidence of a mental health epidemic that is often hidden behind academic success, with almost half of PhD students and graduates in academia struggling with mental health. Approximately 41% of PhD students demonstrate moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression – almost threefold that of the general public – meaning mental health issues are rife in researchers (Evans et al., 2018).
Perhaps, then, we may attribute this to the ‘type’ of person who is attracted to pursuing a career in academia – highly motivated, a perfectionist, and maybe a little hard on themselves. However, research by Levecque et al (2017) compares the incidence of these problems within PhD students to their highly educated counterparts in industry. The findings indicate that one in two PhD students experience psychological distress, and one in three is at risk of developing a common psychiatric disorder – findings which are significantly higher than those within the comparison group.
But why might this be? Why would seemingly driven, motivated and highly successful young individuals be battling with these staggeringly high rates of mental health problems? Levecque and colleagues (2017) attribute these statistics to the effect of their research on work-family life, and found strong predictors of poor mental health to be job demands, lack of job control, and supervisor’s leadership style. Others have attributed these rates to workplace ‘bullying’ of doctoral students (English, Flaherty & English, 2018) and a feeling of disconnection from the research community due to unfamiliar topics or long isolated work (Reeve & Patridge, 2017).
Academics and postgraduate students alike attribute mental health problems and feelings of being overwhelmed to lack of support and isolation. Further research by Belkhir et al (2018) followed a group of young academics and early career researchers over four years. It was reported that feelings of loneliness came from social isolation due to workplace culture, meaning individuals weren’t able to make meaningful relationships with those in their immediate groups. In addition to this, they also reported that they felt unable to participate in conversations with their peers and others in their field, as they felt they lacked both cultural and technical knowledge.
This leads us on to an issue that many postgraduates and early career researchers can related to, known as the ‘Imposter syndrome’. Clance and Imes (1978) first coined the term ‘Imposter syndrome’ in a bid to collectively define the traits of high-achievers who were struggling to accept and internalize their own success. Often, someone struggling with imposter syndrome will claim to be a fraud, or underestimate their own knowledge, attributing their success to luck or circumstance. ‘Imposters’ will often compare themselves to others, and reject praise, leading to anxiety, stress and in some cases, depression. Positive correlations have been observed between imposter syndrome and academic success, neuroticism and perfectionism – all strong traits of a postgraduate student or early career researcher. And it isn’t just them! Many senior faculty members wake up believing they will one day be ‘found out’ Whilst the syndrome is not exclusive to academics, it is rife amongst university staff and students, and is a huge contributor to declining mental health in post graduate education. Watson and Betts (2010) attribute feelings of imposter syndrome to three main themes in an early career researcher’s experience: fear, family and fellowship. The researchers assessed email conversations of graduate researchers, in which a fear of being discovered as a fraud appeared to be one of the main factors driving feelings of imposter syndrome. In addition, this was further exacerbated by feelings of being drawn away from family responsibilities, and a lack of peer support or fellowship during study.
There are a number of reasons why researchers and students may feel like imposters. Firstly, academia is a competitive world. Postgraduate study attracts the best of the best, and fairly often, those surrounding you are intelligent and also over-achieving. Partnered with the constant pressure to ‘publish or perish’, and the need to justify your project and area of expertise, this can result in stress, anxiety and often burnout (Bothello & Roulet, 2018).
Other factors which may also contribute to poor mental health in academia include difficulty in time management, organizational freedom (van Rijsingen, 2018) and perception of career perspectives, funding opportunities and financial problems. The struggle to manage your own work, produce innovation and progress whilst being largely self-taught can often come at the price of mental health issues. It is suggested that stress may stem from insecurity within this sphere – be it financial insecurity, or insecurity concerning ‘unwritten rules’ within the lab or school – and also from frequent evaluation, and a seemingly unmanageable workload (Pyhalto et al., 2012).
All in all, the consensus seems to be that postgraduate researchers and academics alike are struggling in the University environment. This issue is beginning to be addressed more readily, however the phenomenon is not new. McAlpine and Norton (2006) note that the calls for action to rectify this growing problem have generally been ad hoc rather than theory driven (ironically!). As such, research which has been conducted has not been broad enough to integrate factors which could influence outcomes in a University context. And so the cycle continues.
If you have been affected by anything in this article, please talk to a trusted friend or family member, or access help on
- Bothello, J., & Roulet, T. J. (2018). The imposter syndrome, or the mis-representation of self in academic life. Journal of Management Studies, 56(4), 854-861.
- Clance, P.R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 15(3), 241-247.
- English, S., Flaherty, A., & English, A. (2018). Gaslit! An examination of bullying on doctoral students. Perspectives on Social Work, 20.
- Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature biotechnology, 36(3), 282.
- Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868-879.
- McAlpine, L., & Norton, J. (2006). Reframing our approach to doctoral programs: An integrative framework for action and research. Higher Education Research & Development, 25(1), 3-17.
- McManus, S., Bebbington, P., Jenkins, R., & Brugha, T. (2016). Mental Health and Wellbeing in England: Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014: a Survey Carried Out for NHS Digital by NatCen Social Research and the Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester. NHS Digital.
- Mental Health Foundation. (2016). Fundamental Facts about Mental Health 2015. Mental Health Foundation.
- Pyhältö, K., Toom, A., Stubb, J., & Lonka, K. (2012). Challenges of becoming a scholar: A study of doctoral students’ problems and well-being. ISrn Education, 2012.
- Reeve, M. A., & Partridge, M. (2017). The use of social media to combat research-isolation. Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 110(5), 449-456.
- van Rijsingen. (2018), E. Mind Your Head# 1: Let’s talk about mental health in academia.
- Watson, G., & Betts, A. S. (2010). Confronting otherness: An e-conversation between doctoral students living with the Imposter Syndrome. Canadian Journal for New Scholars in Education/Revue canadienne des jeunes chercheures et chercheurs en éducation, 3(1).