One in two PhD students worldwide experiences serious psychological distress with one in three being at the risk of a common psychiatric disorder. A study by the researchers at Gheant University, Belgium has found that the prevalence of mental health problems is 2.43 times higher in PhD students than in the highly educated general population. The study was published in March 2017 in the journal Research Policy.
The study assessed the prevalence of mental health problems in a representative sample of PhD students and compared them to three other samples: highly educated in the general population; highly educated employees and higher education students. Finally they examined organizational factors relating to the role of PhD students that predict mental health status. Students from sciences, biomedical sciences, humanities, social sciences and applied sciences were included for the study and the appointment was assessed by registering the source of research funding.
Findings showed that – compared to assistant lecturers – PhD students employed through project funding and those not knowing their funding resources showed significantly more psychological distress. Age was not significantly associated with mental health. No differences between scientific disciplines were found. Official registration of both staff and student mental health problems (e.g. depression, anxiety, burnout or emotional exhaustion) by universities is relatively low, which seems to be in stark contrast with the picture painted in media reports.
The odds of experiencing at least two psychological symptoms were 34% higher for female PhD students than for males. Pervasiveness of mental health problems is even higher in those countries where PhD students have more financial difficulties.
Most prevalent are feelings of being under constant strain, unhappiness and depression, sleeping problems due to worries, inability to overcome difficulties and not being able to enjoy day-to-day activities. Multivariate analyses show that work-family conflict is the most important predictor of both psychological distress and a risk of a common psychiatric disorder in PhD students. Another strong predictor is job demands, followed by family-work conflict, job control and inspirational leadership style. A closed decision making culture was found to have a significant impact on risk of psychiatric disorder only.
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