The Mental Health Crisis in Graduate Education

In May last year, I have emphasized the high burden of medical students and residents with depression (English: How medical education creates its own patients; German: Wie die Medizinerausbildung ihre eigenen Patienten macht). In the March issue of Nature Biotechnology, Teresa Evans of the University of San Antonio, Texas, and co-authors point out that there is “Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education” (Evans et al., Nature Biotechnology 2018; : 282-284).Mental Health Crisis

The authors conducted a survey of 2279 people from 26 countries and 234 institutions. This was done through established scales to detect depression and anxiety via social media or email. 90% of the addressees were PhD students and 10% Master’s students. Although the results of the study show a significant risk of bias, as those with a history of depression or anxiety are more likely to respond to such a survey than those without such a history, the numbers are alarming.

Graduate students are six times more likely to be affected by anxiety and depression than the general population. 41% of them reported moderate to severe anxiety (general population: 6%). Among the students, 39% of the respondents were affected with moderate to severe depression (general population: 6%). Women were more frequently affected by anxiety and depression than men (women: 43% anxiety, 41% depression; men: 34% anxiety, 35% depression). Prevalences in people from transgender and gender-nonconforming populations were even higher.

Rates of depression and anxiety were especially high in students who did not report good work-life balance and those who did not feel supported by their mentor or who stated that their advisor did not provide „real“ mentorship.

The authors conclude that their „studies show a high prevalence of anxiety and depression in a diverse graduate student sample. 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.

Especially the last point cannot be overemphasized. Enhanced resources within career development offices or faculty training won’t help without change in the academic culture.