Mental health as a PhD student


Hi I am getting increasingly worried about the mental health of phd students. After finding out an acquaintance of mine from another university committed suicide recently, I really feel something needs to change. I have recently finished my phd successfully which I'm really pleased about but my journey through my PhD was really hard and I suffered with anxiety through a good proportion of it. So many people I know seem to have similar problems. What I would like to know is why mental health problems are so widespread in PhD students and what can we do as a community to stop this? I believe that PhDs shouldn't be easy but then they also shouldn't make us Un well either! Would be really interested about what others think about this.


I don't think this is an easy question to answer. Personally, I didn't struggle with my mental health during my PhD. The only thing I found difficult was when I was writing up and I just wanted to be left alone to finish it but I felt pressurised by family and friends to do things with them.

I sometimes feel that people that struggle with their PhD are putting too much pressure on themselves, whether that means they want their supervisor to like them, or get the best results, or write the best thesis or get x number of papers. I don't think these pressures would be unique to the PhD though, I expect these people would feel the same in other environments such as a high pressure or highly competitive job.

I also think people often have high expectations of what a PhD will be - maybe they expect a lot of support from their supervisor, or their research group etc and then find that the reality isn't like this.

There should definitely be more support for people that struggle with their PhD for whatever reason. I think common feelings should be highlighted in seminars when people start their PhD so people know others feel the same too and that that's ok. There should be more training for supervisors as well so that they do their jobs better. And there should be better counselling services to help people deal with how they are feeling.


Is a PhD the cause or symptom? i.e are people with or more susceptible to mental health issues - more likely to do a PhD? Is maturity/experience a factor as studies have shown mental toughness increases with age (e.g MTQ48).


I was diagnosed with GAD while doing my PhD but, to be honest, I'm pretty sure I already had bad anxiety before starting. The pressure of studying while working, looking after kids really didn't help but I can't really blame that on the PhD if you see what I mean.


I'd say only a very small proportion of people have mental health issues directly caused by the PhD. Most people likely already have tendencies. Having said that the PhD is definitely a breeding ground for making mental health issues worse.

For example:

Being a perfectionist and high achiever: You go from being top at your undergraduate degree, constantly praised etc, to suddenly not collecting data/writing as fast as you'd have hoped. You may also be anxious for publications.

Research: If you go straight from undergrad to a research PhD it can be a shock to the system. Being intelligent at your undergrad degree doesn't neccesairly give you the skills of high motivation, not giving up and ruthless stamina.

Low self esteem: the PhD can massively rock the boat. Being surrounded by hundreds of intelligent and confident people and comparing yourself against them (the worst thing you can do). You may also be surrounded by lab members and PhD companions seeing and hearing how great their is going, and their publications, whilst you're stuck in a bad patch. Some people also see their PhD and its success as a measure of self worth.

Imposter syndrome: Kind of ties in with low self-esteem. Thinking you're no good and shouldn't be there. This chips away at your confidence and self-esteem and if bad enough can contribute/cause depression.

Supervisor support: If you're struggling in confidence, lacking in support (designing experiments/writing) and training, this can make things far worse.

Multi-tasking: Working in the lab collecting data, writing, analysing data, going to conferences, presentations, teaching undergraduate students can also put a lot of pressure on your shoulders.

This is just my experience/thoughts.



I think there needs to be better support available for people who experience mental ill-health during their PhDs, whether the problem pre-dated the PhD or started during it. There is too much of a culture of acceptance that anxiety and depression are just normal things that happen during the PhD. I remember during my PhD induction, a newly-appointed member of staff (who'd just finished her own PhD) gave a talk on what to expect from the PhD, and she actually named depression as something to expect! Fortunately, a more senior academic got up after her, and pointed out that depression was not just to be accepted, and encouraged us to seek support if we became depressed.


Some good responses on here. I agree that this is not an issue with PhDs in general.
In my opinion it is a wider issue. Undergraduates are plagued by this mental fragility and it appears women suffer more than men.
I think that young people are definitely more prone to this than other generations. Facebook and all social media in general has a huge deal to answer for because it breeds isolation. Lazy parents who cover their kids in cotton wool and protect them from everything are a scourge on this generation as well. Add to that the pressure heaped on kids by teachers to get good grades and go to university as the only way to succeed in life with no regard to whether the person wants to go and you have a recipe for disaster.
Then you add in the infantilisation of undergraduate students by academic staff who treat students with kid gloves in order to secure favourable student reviews and a culture of political correctness and the perma offended who discourage any sort of disagreement of views because they have deemed it disrespectful to hold a different opinion. We have a whole raft of people out there telling us what to think which inevitably breeds resentment. Then you have this laughable framing of every single referendum amd election as a fight between good and evil which means those on the losing side no longer accept the wishes of the democratic majority and you have to wonder why anyone nees to ask the question of where depression comes from. People dont properly respect each other any more. People dont respect the right of others to hold different views. People have become more self obsessed. They believe that they are vitally important because nobody in their life has displayed any honesty towards them for them to believe any different. So for twenty year they are told they are a star but the reality is that the overwhelming majority are doing a bang average job, earning a bang average salary for a bang average company IF THEY ARE LUCKY.
People are way too obsessed with how others think of them and it clouds everything they do.

The question should not be why id mental illness so rife.
It should be why so many people manage to survive this WITHOUT breaking.

The obvious problem is that when you do a PhD or take a job, real life kicks in and it is brutal . Many young people find themselves ill equipped to cope without safe spaces, nurturing environments or a host of other people prepared to wipe up behind them.

My advice is to gather people around you with a variety of views and opinions who will be honest with you. Secondly, get over yourself. Thirdly, try and do things which bring meaning to your own life. Finally, screw anyone else who would criticise you for living your own life.


There are 3 PhD students in my lab and we have all had issues with mental health over the past year. I agree that the PhD wasn't necessarily the direct cause but it was a massive contributing factor. When there was a lot of pressure coming from my PhD I was coping but the moment something went wrong in my home life as well everything fell to bits. I think a big part of it is the never switching off. I'm always looking for or reading papers, writing up chapters or planning my next experiment. And then there is the unspoken expectations that PhD students should spend all there time working, it creates a lot of pressure overall.


That's so true actually, it is a big cause of worry. I think the mental pressure is too much. However, it doesn't affect some people.


Quote From alicehere:
That's so true actually, it is a big cause of worry. I think the mental pressure is too much. However, it doesn't affect some people.

Oh I am pretty sure it affects everyone. The question is whether it breaks you or not.
By the way, this won't necessarily stop when you graduate. When you hit the working world, if you want to succeed then you'll be subjecting yourself to perhaps decades of this. I remember countless years of stressing out at night over work, not sleeping well and trying to keep on top of things. I remember struggling to enjoy the weekend because only two days later I'd be back at the desk again. No, this really isn't just the PhD I'm afraid. It's modern working life and unless you opt out of it altogether work pressure isn't going away any time soon. This is why it is so important to figure out how to be resilient.


I am in the first year of my phd study. I have just started for three months but I feel quite a lot of pressure. I am now writing my proposal on a topic that i am totally not unfamiliar with so I need to read a lot of prior literature, and this makes me very anxious. When I sumbitted my first draft to my sup, I got a lot of critcal commemts. These comments make me feel that i am not good enough as a phd student. I was also asked to revise and resubmit the draft. After i submitted the second draft, i got another set of critical comments and was asked again to revise it again. This process seems never ending and makes me have the strong feeling that phd is not suitable for me. I am tring hard to make myself think positive but the feeling of inferioritiy always remains. I still have two years or so to go. How can I make myself feel better?

I agree that phd work is never ending. We need to teach, read a lot, publish papers, attend conferences, and write our theses. It is really hard to strike a balance between work and life.


I didnt suffer from mental health issues but I went to see a consellor at my uni toward the end of my first year because I was hating my research project and wanted to change the direction of my research.

In my experience at the beginning if the PhD I was not clear about what was expected of me and what my thesis shoukd have looked like. Things changed for me when I started thinking 'fuck this, it doese not have to be great, it just needs to be good enough to graduate'. After that it became easier to write.

Most importnstnthing for your mental health is your super. Its important to have somebody supportive.


I had difficulties including anxiety and depression during my PhD, and while the problems weren't caused by the PhD (I'd had them intermittently for some years before) they were probably made worse by some aspects. It can be a lonely and demoralising time, especially if things are not going well and you don't have a supportive supervisor or colleagues.

One thing I did notice was that when I went to the university health centre about my problems, I felt they were dismissed as a normal part of the PhD, e.g. 'everyone gets stressed about writing up', whereas my problems were much more long-standing than that. It's a difficult one because of course a certain amount of stress and worry is normal (both during the PhD process and in life in general) and that shouldn't necessarily be medicalised -- but nor should worrying symptoms be written off as just part of being a student.

I do agree that resilience is hugely important, and that we could probably learn a lot from looking at the people who don't get overly stressed or unwell, despite adversity and failure. Not in the sense of blaming the 'victims' or telling them to just get over it, but in terms of coping techniques and habits of thinking that might help the rest of us with our mental wellbeing. The book 'Learned Optimism' by Martin Seligman is very interesting on this subject.

It's definitely not just a problem for PhDs/academia, though. I was reading recently about the high levels of mental health problems and alcohol/substance misuse among medical doctors (particularly psychiatrists, interestingly enough), and it's probably the case in many other professions as well.


I lived with 8 other PhD students. 4 of us made use of the university's counselling service. It was burnout and stress for most of us.

I don't think mental illness should be normalised during the PhD process, but I do think it's understandable that it occurs due to the intense pressures of the process.

On the plus side, I signed up for 6 sessions and only needed 2, as they made me see clearly again. Sometimes it's just good to talk.