I didn’t know the risks: stressed PhD students struggle with mental illness

Many doctoral students struggle with the pressure of study.

By CAITLIN HENDERSON

Monash University graduates who battled mental illness during their PhD said they were not warned about the risks, despite growing global research.

A study from Belgium, published earlier this year, found PhD students were up to 2.8 times more likely to experience a mental illness than control groups, with just over half of students reporting significant psychological distress. 

But one Monash doctoral graduate* said “the horse had bolted” by the time she became aware of the dangers.

She was hospitalised twice during the PhD program, spending several weeks in a psychiatric ward after the pressure to produce results triggered a severe mental health crisis.

“It was way too late by the time I was told anything explicit about [the risks],” she said.

For universities around the world, the recent data only adds to decades of red flags over the doctoral system, with a 2015 paper from the Australian Catholic University seeking to understand why up to half of students drop out before completion.

Among Monash University’s efforts to address the problem has been the introduction of mandatory accreditation for PhD supervisors, including one online resource detailing the nine-step “emotional rollercoaster” and how to manage it.

Alongside “elation and enthusiasm”, the document warns supervisors of an expected “slump in productivity and procrastination” in the middle of the PhD, and feelings of “frustration, anxiety, boredom and panic” towards completion.

For another recent Monash PhD graduate* who developed anxiety and depression during his research, knowing his supervisor had this resource would have encouraged him to seek  help before his mental health seriously declined.

“This is the first time I’m hearing this,” he said.

Monash University director of graduate student experience Jeremiah Byrnes said student wellbeing was discussed at the Graduate Research Committee, but did not anticipate any changes in response to the new data.

Mr Byrnes said that “a lot of great work” was happening in direct student training “at least since 2015”, including programs on mindfulness, motivation and managing supervisor relationships, but much of the support framework was left up to individual faculties.

He said that both university and faculty-level information sessions sought to prepare students for the realities of doing a PhD, and that the sessions did “a really good job, I think, of setting expectations”.

“One of the things we tell students at that point, so they’re prospective students, is the PhD’s really challenging. By its very nature, it’s open ended and self-directed in some ways,” Mr Byrnes said.

Neither the Monash website for graduate research or the Handbook for Doctoral Degrees make clear reference to these issues or offers guidance to students.

* Monash University PhD graduates who are still associated with the university have remained anonymous to protect their privacy.

Support for mental health issues can be found at Beyond Blue, Anxiety Recovery Centre Victoria, and Lifeline Australia