Graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as the general population, according to a comprehensive survey of 2,279 individuals conducted via social media and email.
The research team, including Drs. Teresa Evans and Lindsay Bira of the University of Texas Health-San Antonio, described their results in the March issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology.
The survey included clinically validated scales for anxiety and depression. Nine of 10 respondents were doctoral students, while 10% were master's degree students. Information on major fields of study was not provided, but the global list of academic institutions spanned public, private and land-grant universities and colleges.
The survey comes on the heels of a recent mental health study in the veterinary profession conducted by Merck Animal Health and the American Veterinary Medical Assn.
The disparity between graduate students and the general population proved to be about equal for both mental health conditions. On the respective scales utilized to test anxiety and depression, 41% of graduate students scored as having moderate to severe anxiety while 39% scored in the moderate to severe depression range. This compared with 6% of the general population tested previously with the same scales.
The study found that female graduate students were more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression than male graduate students, with 43% of female respondents scoring in the moderate to severe anxiety range and 41% in the depression range. This compared to 34% and 35%, respectively, for the male respondents.
"There is a growing cry for help from graduate students across the globe who struggle with significant mental health concerns," Evans, Bira and the other authors wrote. "Despite increased discussion of the topic, there remains a dire need to resolve our understanding of the mental health issues in the trainee population."
The study identified these issues to include work/life balance and the trainee/adviser relationship.
The graduate students were asked whether they agree with the statement, "I have a good work/life balance," and 56% of graduate students experiencing moderate to severe anxiety and 55% of students 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% 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 authors cautioned 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. Nevertheless, they said the data should prompt both academia and policy-makers to consider intervention strategies.
"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.