Studies of mental health in academia

There is growing evidence of a mental wellbeing crisis among graduate students, postdocs, and professors. I summarize the studies below and offer many resources over here. If you know of another relevant study that I don’t mention here, please contact me!

Content warning: depression, anxiety, other mental illness, suicide

Evans et al. 2018, Nature Biotechnology, “Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education”; covered by Inside Higher Ed

  • 2,279 respondents from 26 countries and 234 institutions, 90% are PhD candidates, 38% in biological & physical sciences
  • 39% scored in the moderate to severe depression range
  • Compare with 6% of gen. pop. on same scale in same range
  • Gender minorities had significantly higher rates of problems than cis-men
  • (Lack of) satisfaction with mentorship/advising is a predictor of mental health problems

Parlangeli et al. 2018, Science and Engineering Ethics, “Perceptions of Work-Related Stress and Ethical Misconduct Against Non-tenured Researchers in Italy”

  • 710 Italian researchers on fixed-term research staff contracts at Italian universities (e.g., postdoctoral fellows); 51.5% were female
  • Researchers are exposed to a high risk of stress, stemming from low levels of support by their peers and supervisors/advisors, work demands, and lack of adequate role definition and change communication
  • Men perceived their job to be less unstable and reported higher confidence in finding a stable job in the future
  • No significant gender difference in the level of job satisfaction
  • Average perceived stress level was significantly higher than normative values reported for a comparable general population
  • Ethical misconduct in research is more reasonably due to negative influence of socio-organizational factors than to the low level of psycho-physical wellbeing of non-tenured researchers

Levecque et al. 2017, Research Policy, “Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students”; covered by Physics Today and Science

  • 3,659 PhD candidates in Flanders Belgium, 66% in STEM (including biomedical fields)
  • 32% at risk of having/developing a common mental illness, esp. depression
  • 51% experience at least 2 symptoms of mental health problems (experience “psychological distress”), and this is twice as high as comparable non-grad-school population
  • Occurrence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in the highly educated general population, highly educated employees and higher education students
  • Odds of mental health problems significantly higher for women than men
  • Work and organizational context are significant predictors of PhD students’ mental health

Lipson et al. 2016, Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, “Major Differences: Variations in Undergraduate and Graduate Student Mental Health and Treatment Utilization Across Academic Disciplines”

  • 64,519 undergraduate and graduate students at 81 universities in the US
  • 26% of graduate students met criteria for at least one mental health problem
  • For students with apparent mental health problems, treatment rates are lowest in business and engineering

Keashly 2015, National Communication Association, “When Debate, Discourse, and Exchange Go Bad: Bullying in the Academic Workplace”

  • 25-35% of academics were bullied in the workplace in 2014-2015, compared to 10-14% of the general population
  • 40-50% of academics witnessed someone being bullied in the workplace in 2014-2015
  • Women faculty and/or faculty of color appear to be at greater risk for bullying
  • Bullying among faculty is most often peer-to-peer
  • In approximately 1/3 of cases, more than one bully is involved (“academic mobbing”)
  • Targets and witnesses show signs of mental, emotional, psychological, and physical strain; decreased productivity; reduced job satisfaction and organizational commitment; and increased intention to leave the job

Garcia-Williams et al. 2014, Academic Psychiatry, “Mental Health and Suicidal Behavior Among Graduate Students”

  • 301 graduate students at a large southeastern university in the US; 73% from arts and sciences
  • At least half reported feelings of anxiety and intense loneliness
  • 86% reported feelings nervous or worrying a lot, feeling life is too stressful, and becoming easily annoyed or irritable in the past month
  • 7% reported thoughts of suicide
  • Men didn’t use services (e.g., counseling) as much as women

Wynaden et al. 2014, Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, “The Silence of Mental Health Issues Within University Environments: A Quantitative Study”

  • 270 staff members from two universities in Australia; 25% male, 67% female, 8% other gender; 51% academic staff, 49% professional staff
  • Staff exhibited very positive responses and attitudes towards people with mental illness, ranging from 86% to 96% for different questions
  • Staff agreed that it is important to provide care for people with a mental illness and acknowledged that anyone can develop a mental illness; responses ranged from 90% to 92% for different questions
  • Not as many staff identified stress and grief as types of mental illness (compared to identifying depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia as mental illnesses)
  • 50% of staff have an immediate family member who has or had a mental illness, 50% have a friend who has or had a mental illness, 30% have a work colleague who has or had a mental illness, and 30% have or had a mental illness themselves
  • And yet, 54% responded that they would be uncomfortable discussing mental health problems with family and friends
  • 89% reported that they did not feel comfortable discussing issues related to their mental health with their employer

Watts and Robertson 2011, Educational Research, “Burnout in university teaching staff: a systematic literature review”

  • Literature review of 12 English-language papers characterizing three aspects of burnout in university teaching staff; sample sizes of the papers range from 48 to 1067 participants, with a mean of 309.83
  • Greatest perceived pressures were non-student factors like time pressures, research, and diminished collegiality
  • Significant negative relationship between social support (including perceived support from managers) and emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, and positive relationship between social support and work-related satisfaction
  • Teaching graduate students increased emotional exhaustion and depersonalization compared with teaching undergraduates
  • Younger staff were more vulnerable to emotional exhaustion
  • Some studies showed that gender minorities were at greater risk of emotional exhaustion, and men were at greater risk of depersonalization
  • The more students they taught at once, the worse the teachers’ wellbeing
  • Social norms lead staff to under-play negative experiences or exhibit greater cynicism in public

Court and Kinman 2008, University and College Union, “Tackling stress in higher education” (gives a great overview of the Health and Safety Executive protocol, and has wonderful suggestions for improving the system)

  • 14,270 lecturers, researchers, instructors, administrators, etc. in the UK; 9,740 were in higher education; 52.2% cis-female, 47.7% cis-male, 0.2% trans (gender not given); 93.6% white, 6.3% Black or minority ethnic; 91.7% abled; 54.9% in HE had combined teaching and research duties; 88% had open-ended or permanent contracts
  • 78.6% of full-timers worked more than 40 hours a week
  • Nearly half said their general or average level of stress was high or very high
  • Nearly 1/3 said they often experienced levels of stress they found unacceptable; the most common reasons given for this were ‘lack of time to undertake research’, ‘excessive workloads’, and ‘lack of resources to undertake research, including problems in obtaining funding’

Hyun et al. 2007, Journal of American College Health, “Mental Health Need, Awareness, and Use of Counseling Services Among International Graduate Students” (see also Hyun et al. 2006, Journal of College Student Development)

  • 2,570 domestic and 551 international graduate students at a large university in the western US; 53% of int’l students are in science and engineering, 38% of domestic students are in science and engineering
  • 44% int’l students reported significant emotional or stress-related problem that significantly affected academic performance in the past year
  • 25% of domestic and 39% of international graduate students were unaware of university counseling services
  • 17% of int’l graduate students used counseling services, compared to 36% of domestic graduate students
  • Students with a positive working relationship with their advisor were less likely to report an emotional or stress-related problem

Institutional studies:

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