New survey findings published in the journal Nature Biotechnology reveal that graduate students are more than six times as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety compared to the general population.
The comprehensive survey, conducted by researchers at the University of Texas (UT) Health San Antonio, involved 2,279 individuals and included clinically validated scales for anxiety and depression. The survey respondents were 90 percent Ph.D. students and 10 percent master’s degree students and participated via social media and direct email.
The mental health disparity found between graduate students and the general population was about equal for both anxiety and depression: 41 percent of graduate students scored as having moderate to severe anxiety while 39 percent scored in the moderate to severe depression range, compared with six percent of the general population for both conditions.
Female graduate students were more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression than their male counterparts. The transgender and/or gender-nonconforming population also scored significantly higher.
For example, 43 percent of female respondents scored in the moderate to severe anxiety range and 41 percent in the depression range, compared to 34 percent and 35 percent, respectively, for the male respondents. For transgender/gender-nonconforming graduate students, the totals were 55 percent and 57 percent.
“There is a growing cry for help from graduate students across the globe who struggle with significant mental health concerns,” wrote the study authors. “Despite increased discussion of the topic, there remains a dire need to resolve our understanding of the mental health issues in the trainee population.”
These issues, as identified in the study, include work-life balance and trainee-adviser relationship. For example, respondents were asked whether they agree with the statement, “I have a good work-life balance.” Fifty-six percent of those experiencing moderate to severe anxiety and 55 percent of those experiencing depression said they did not agree.
“Work-life balance is hard to attain in a culture where it is frowned upon to leave the laboratory before the sun goes down,” the authors wrote.
Likewise, 50 percent of graduate students experiencing anxiety and depression said they did not agree with the statement that their principal investigator or adviser provides “real” mentorship.
Many universities lack adequate career and professional development programs, the authors wrote, also noting, “Career development encompasses many skills that are vital to graduate student success, but often not included under this umbrella is mental health.”
The study was conducted by Teresa Evans, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology and the founder of the Office of Workforce and Career Development; and Lindsay Bira, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Joe R. & Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine.
The authors caution that the study is a convenience sample in which respondents who have had a history of anxiety or depression may have been more apt to respond to the survey. Still, the data should encourage both academia and policymakers to consider intervention strategies, the authors wrote.
“The strikingly high rates of anxiety and depression support a call to action to establish and/or expand mental health and career development resources for graduate students through enhanced resources within career development offices, faculty training, and a change in the academic culture,” the paper concluded.