PhDs, academia and mental health

PhDs, academia and mental health

It’s October 10th, and it’s World Mental Health Day.

It therefore seemed like a good time to talk about PhDs, the world of academia and mental health. It’s a topic that is commonly overlooked, yet so important to have awareness of.

Embarking on a PhD is exciting, they come with amazing opportunities and you’ll be an expert in your research field by the end of it. You’re the creator of knowledge and have the ability to share it with the world. How awesome is that? A PhD can take 3-7 years depending where you are in the world. Yes, it’s a long journey. Kind of like an endurance event – a lot of people go through the motions, you get the highs and you get the lows.

Everyone’s PhD journey is different, there are many factors which dictate how easy/hard the ride will be. For some it can be a very isolating experience and research shows a high proportion of students struggle with mental health, from anxiety to clinical depression.


Self Reflected in Violets - Greg A Dunn Design
Self Reflected in Violets – Greg A Dunn Design

We don’t often like to talk about our struggles in life. We don’t want to appear weak to others. We want people to see the good aspects of our lives. Sometimes we may struggle mentally but we don’t want to even admit that to ourselves because the realisation is a scary one. It’s a taboo subject for sure.

There’s a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in the world of academia. This acceptance needs to be broken down. Why should people suffer in their job? Since when was that ok? Of course a PhD is difficult, it’s the highest qualification a person can get, and we don’t expect an easy ride but the common view “A PhD is supposed to be hard” is not ok. There’s a difference between a journey being challenging and a journey where struggling mentally is accepted as that’s just the norm.

Over the last few years, people have started to speak out more, which is fantastic. Sharing experiences can help others in the same position a great deal as it helps them to relate to another person.




What research says:

A study in Belgium, published earlier this year in the journal Research Policy, investigated the prevalence of mental health problems in 3,659 PhD students. Here’s what they found:

  • 51% experience psychological distress
  • 32% experience common psychiatric disorders.
  • The prevalence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in other highly educated populations.

The main causes include: work-family conflict, work overload, unrealistic demands, unsupportive supervisors, interpersonal problems at work and sleep deprivation as a result of worrying about work.

A report in the USA also revealed that between 42% and 48% of University of California science and engineering PhD students are depressed.

Both studies add to the literature surrounding academia and mental health, and emphasises the need to put policies in place to support the issue.


“Universities should adopt mental health as a strategic priority, implementing a whole university approach, with students and staff involved at all stages of the journey.” – Universities UK


So what can you do for you?

IG tip #14


Self-care – Remember your mental and physical wellbeing is a priority, look after you! Fellow bloggers (dr.ofwhat? and Heidi R Gardner) have written blog posts about self-care so go and check those out!

Have a nose at my blog posts – I share advice on various aspects linked to the PhD life in my PhD SOS feature, from how to get out of the PhD slump, to easy ways to add exercise into your busy schedule, to getting your focus and motivation back – check them out!

Talk about your feelings – Whether that’s to family/friends/partner or a mentor. A mentor can be hugely useful. Seek out what support services your University provides. Talking about your struggles may help you understand your feelings a bit more, and that self-awareness might help you to push for change.

Be proactive in creating change – Talk to relevant charities, work with your university. Help to increase awareness of the issue and help to break these acceptances down. Perhaps you could promote wellbeing and mindfulness sessions within your university?


Please remember:

  • You are not alone, there’s a wealth of support out there.
  • You can have a social life as well as get a PhD.
  • It is not ok to work yourself to the point of illness.
  • It is not ok for academics to encourage this behaviour.
  • Asking for help is not a weakness, seek help and try to put advice into practice.



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4 thoughts on “PhDs, academia and mental health

  1. “It is not ok to work yourself to the point of illness.
    It is not ok for academics to encourage this behaviour.”
    You’re so right, and I really hope that the academic landscape is beginning to change (however slowly!) – there are far too many miserable PhD students and post-docs missing out on a social life because they’re being crushed under the pressure of their work. Brilliant post as always, Lisa 🙂 X


    1. Thank you so much Heidi, means a lot! I have already started to see some changes where I work. More questionnaires about postgrad mental health have been emailed the last year and our department have wellbeing sessions incl. yoga… but these are just for staff. Step in the right direction but should be accessible to the PhD students too! x

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome. Every blog post you write is so valuable to others ❤️ self-care really is important and thank you so much for sharing xxx


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