Academia and Mental Illness

I have many friends who are studying for their Masters and Ph.Ds. I admire them because they have a strong work ethic and are dedicated to achieving their career goals. The downsides to continuing to these active programs are the heavy workload, lack of sleep, and extracurricular activities the student has to do so they can receive potential job offers after their finish their education. This can cultivate into mental illness.


According to a recent study, approximately one–third of Ph.D. students are at risk for developing a common psychiatric disorder like depression. The results come from a small sample, 3695 students in universities in Flanders, Belgium, 90% of whom are studying the sciences and social sciences, but it is an important addition to the growing research of the prevalence of mental health issues in academia.

In another study, administered in 2014 by the Graduate Assembly at the University of California, Berkely, more than a third of masters’ students and almost half of Ph.D. students were depressed with career prospects, living conditions, financial stability, academic preparation, progress, and the advisor relationship.

Furthermore, a study conducted at large research institute in Texas suggested that 13% of the postdoctoral trainees were doing well, 58% were struggling, and 29% were depressed.

Where Does the Stress, Anxiety, and Depression come From?

A considerable predictor of experiencing mental health challenges was the difficulty of balancing family needs and work commitments. High job demands and low job control.

Nathan Vanderford, an assistant professor in the Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology at the University of Kentucky and associate dean of for academic development in the university’s college of medicine, the mental health issues that he sees in students are stress and anxiety of not knowing the way and not knowing how to find the way. He also said that the students are also frustrated at the lack of career development resources that they have within their department through their Principal Investigator (PI).

According to Teresa Evans, the director of the Office of Career Development within the Graduate Institute of Biomedical Science at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSSA) and lecturer in professional development in the Department of Pharmacology, the mental health issues she encounters with students are normal worries such as figuring out to achieve work-life balance.

Lindsey Bira, a practicing clinical health psychologist at UTHSCSSA, says that mental health stigma is still very present in academia. Once you have a problem in your lab, you go straight to your immediate advisor. The issue is that the advisor may be so busy with other commitments, that they may have a hands-off approach to mentoring. The consequence is that when students meet with them, there may be such a massive emotional disconnection that they may not be honest about any mental health problems they are having, confusion about career goals, or other professional development concerns.

Vanderford says that the grad student and the postdoc students have a unique situation because so much of their career depends on the relationship they have with their PI. They don’t want to mess it up, so if they don’t feel comfortable expressing their feelings, they are going to feel repressed in telling their PI and others about their issues. Also, there is a tough girl and tough guy mentality in academia that fewer students are willing to be vulnerable.

Evans adds that it may be potentially harder for female scientists to express their mental health needs in academia because they often find themselves thinking if they show any emotion they would be viewed as weak by their male counterparts.

Few Tips to Handle Mental Health Challenges in Academia

  1. Limit things that are most difficult for you, if possible. One example is setting a quota for super challenging classes.
  2. Remember You Don’t Have To Do Everything. If you’re having a tough day, do your priority work and leave the voluntary work alone.
  3. Find people you trust to talk to you about your issues and avoid people who make you uncomfortable.
  4. Self-Care. Self–Care could mean going to therapy, taking your medications, exercising, reading a book, or napping.
  5. Have a variety of different mentors. The advisor you talk to about your career growth may be different from the advisor you talk to about your personal growth.

Mr. Squigglekins, Mr. Chef, and Mr. Jazz, and many others in higher education, I hope this piece helps you guys traverse the treacherous waters of academia! Sail Ahoy!


      1. Elisabeth Pain Apr. 11, 2016 , 4:30 PM, 21, 2. E., 6, 2. J., 20, 2. A., & 22, 2. E. (2017, December 09). Trainees and mental health: Let’s talk! Retrieved February 10, 2018, from

      2. Elisabeth Pain Apr. 4, 2017, 3:15 PM, 21, 2. E., 6, 2. J., 20, 2. A., & 22, 2. E. (2017, December 08). Ph.D. students face significant mental health challenges. Retrieved February 10, 2018, from

      3. Inside Higher Ed. (n.d.). Retrieved February 10, 2018, from

By Pedro Felipe (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons