Compared to the general population, graduate and PhD students are six times more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety – a study conducted by Evans et al. (2018) suggests an enormous prevalence of moderate-to-severe depression in PhD students (39%). Consistently, female PhD and graduate students suffer from these symptoms more frequently than men.

 

Why is this the case? What “survival strategies” did people use who already completed their PhD journey? Here is some recommended reading on the mental health crisis in academia:

  • Nature collection on science careers and mental health
  • An article in Nature Cell Biology about mentoring
  • General information:
    • A podcast on mental health during your PhD
    • Mind is a UK-based charity that aims at promoting mental health among PhD and graduate students. They have a lot of educational content on their website. You can also order booklets on specific problems.
    • An overview of a workshop on the issue held by the Max Planck Society; the website also has some useful information and links.

 

Here, we take a closer look at symptoms that are reported frequently in PhD students:

Self-doubt in Academia: The Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome is a complex system of attitudes and convictions around self-doubt and feelings of being inadequate and/or incompetent.

The term has first been utilized by Clance and Imes (1978). They reported a failure of internalizing successes and feelings of fraudulence observed in high-achieving women. Impostors are convinced of being unworthy of the praise they receive despite many achievements and accolades. These exemplary statements by a hypothetical impostor further illustrate this syndrome: “I only got this position because I can be quite charming. I frauded my way into this program by exploiting this trait.”; “I must have deceived the selection committee - I do not have the abilities that they think I have”; “The jury must have lowered their standards for me”; “I only published this paper because I knew one of the journal’s editors or because of my writing style”; “ and so forth. Here is some more information on the impostor syndrome, since knowing about it is already the first step towards a cure.

  • A short TED-Ed illustration video on what impostor syndrome is and how you can combat it.
  • “Ever felt like you’re faking it?” - Starting with that question, this article explains why impostor syndrome affects the most successful people. Besides, it summarizes key strategies to deal with it.

 

Depression

Depression is a highly prevalent mental disorder. Estimates are that about 11-20% of the whole population will experience a clinically relevant major depressive disorder at some point during their life. Isolated symptoms of depression can occur in all of us. If, however, the symptoms interfere with your daily life, it is time to seek out for some help.

Symptoms of depression include lowering of mood, reduction of energy and decreased activity. For example, you might find it very hard to get up in the morning to go to work; or to go out and meet your friends. Some people report that they do not enjoy the things they used to like as much anymore. Others report problems concentrating or tiredness even after minimum effort. Usually, sleep and appetite change during a depressive episode. Some people sleep much more than before; others can’t find sleep anymore. The same is true for appetite: some forms of depression will cause you to constantly overeat, while others might make you stop having an appetite all together. Some people lose interest in sex, or you might feel very restless and agitated. Ideas of guilt or worthlessness are almost always present.

These symptoms can interfere with your daily life, your family, friends and relationships, your job and physical health. If you feel like you are experiencing these symptoms, reach out and talk about them to your friends, family or a therapist.

 

Anxiety

Being anxious is a very basic human response to any sort of threat. Anxiety includes feelings of worry, uneasiness, tension or fear which are expressed through thoughts, feelings or even physical symptoms. These feelings are mostly directed to things that might happen in the future. Most people feel anxious from time to time, especially when dealing with stressful events or situations that might have a big impact on your life (like getting a PhD, for example…).

However normal it is, anxiety can become a real problem when it is too excessive or not in proportion with the feared event. It may reduce your quality of life for a long period of time or hinder you from doing the things that you want to do. There are many different triggers of anxiety. Some very common ones are social situations, or such in which one is being evaluated - both very prevalent in the life of a PhD student. But anxiety has as many faces as there are people. Some may experience sudden, intense panic attacks even without an obvious trigger; while a different person may engage in excessive worry about their own health and bodily symptoms.

Moreover, unattended anxiety and stress can lead overtime to a series of physical syndromes. Those can stretch anywhere from sweaty palms to short breath to chronic headaches and migraines, or even irritable bowel syndrome. The last one is a functional disorder with symptoms like cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea or constipation. If you are experiencing similar symptoms, contact your general practitioner and mention the nature of your work and its stress and anxiety levels.

If you feel like your anxiety has reached an excessive level at which you find it hard to go about the activities you enjoy, please reach out and talk about them to your family, friends or a therapist.

 

Further General Information About Mental Health

Aktionsbündnis seelische Gesundheit

A nationwide initiative that is supported by the German Federal Ministry of Health.
It is a good resource for someone who wants to learn about different symptoms and disorders. They also announce regular events on the website.

Importantly, they are also instructive when it comes to reaching out and looking for help by searching many types of counselling services and hotlines (Telefonseelsorge). They inform about the basic forms of treatment that are available in Germany. Unfortunately, this page is only available in German.

 

MIND UK

This informative website can help you get more information about any problem: anger, anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, drugs, eating problems, loneliness, paranoia, self-harm, stress, trauma and many more.