Everyone knows that postgraduate studies are challenging.  This is how it’s intended to be. However, while postgraduate students go into their studies with reasonable expectations, there is often an unspoken reality: the psychological burden.

Postgraduate students who spend a lot of time buried beneath a stack of books or in a lab, are frequently so used to hard work, self-discipline and direct reward for their efforts, that they get frustrated when their attempts to regulate their mental health don’t provide perfect results.

You aren’t the only one who has experienced this.

Jennifer Walker, an ex-physicist turned culture and travel writer,  wrote on her blog:

It wasn’t the intellectual challenges or the workload that brought me down; it was my deteriorating mental health. I felt unsupported, isolated and adrift in uncertainty. Anxiety attacks became a part of my daily life… I sometimes thought I wanted to die.

I don’t know Jennifer, but as someone who recently completed my own PhD, I can definitely empathize with some of her sentiments. I recall the sense of doubt and being at the bottom of the preverbal pit, like it was yesterday. I remember notifying my supervisor around three months before submission that I was considering quitting my studies. The psychological impact had begun to increase, and it was challenging to manage research processes and mental health.

When I learned that a large proportion of postgraduate students were dealing with mental health challenges, I was not sure whether to be surprised or relieved:

According to a study published in 2021, postgraduate students reported higher rates of anxiety, depression, insomnia, and suicidal ideation than the general population. 40.7% of respondents expressed moderate or severe anxiety symptoms, 40.5% depression symptoms, 46.3% reported insomnia symptoms, and 23.4% reported thoughts of suicide and/or self-harm.
In 2019, Nature conducted a PhD survey which found that 36% of respondents have sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their postgraduate studies.
An international survey published by the World Health Organization in 2018 found that 31% of respondents had shown signs of a mental disorder, such as major depression, general anxiety disorder or a panic disorder, in the previous 12 months.
A 2017 study including 3,500 Belgian PhD students, indicated that one out of every two PhD students reported psychological distress during their studies. More than 30% were at risk of developing a mental illness, particularly depression.
In 2005, a survey at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 10% of postgraduate students contemplated suicide. Ten years later, in 2015, 47% of PhD students said they were depressed.
How can this be possible? Shouldn’t academics be the individuals who have it all together and know all there is to know about everything?

Individualized psychological difficulties are frequently linked to a perceived or actual lack of support for postgraduate students. The uncertainties postgraduate students face, ranging from immediate challenges of funding and the practicality of their studies, to the longer-term concerns of their future and what they will do after obtaining their degree, could be a significant cause of stress. Furthermore, according to a recent study (2022), postgraduate students may feel undervalued and excluded from their departments, which can lead to decreased life satisfaction and despair. I’d imagine that all of these difficulties are amplified for students who do not have supportive supervisors during their postgraduate studies.

Sure, okay. So, what do I do?

While psychosocial stressors and related mental health challenges are frequent among postgraduate students, recognizing the indicators and obtaining support can enable you to complete your studies.

The following are some indicators that are in line with the DSM-5-TR, that I’ve encountered as a social worker.  If you’re familiar with these, or it intensifies, contact your healthcare provider.  They’ll assist in determining the best treatment options for you.

# Constantly feeling sad, anxious or empty

Do you feel miserable, quickly moved to tears, or perhaps more anxious than usual? You could also be experiencing numbing sensations, and don’t feel anything at all. It’s not uncommon to go through periods of emotional turmoil followed by periods of apathy.

# Lost of interest in activities that you have enjoyed previously

We all know we need to find something we enjoy doing outside of the lab, away from the books. Regardless of how much work you have, it’s critical to take time away and recharge. If you realize that you are losing interest in hobbies or pastimes, this could be an indication that your mental health is deteriorating.

# Changes in appetite and weight.

Changes in your appetite can also suggest mental health challenges.  You may experience weight increase or decrease without changing their dietary habits at all! “Oh my gosh, you have lost weight!” may be an indication of something much deeper.

# Challenges with sleep, irritability, and memory.

You can’t stay awake during the day. However, as soon as you get into bed, you are unable to fall asleep! When you finally do fall asleep, you toss and turn all night or wake up in the middle of the night and are unable to return to sleep. Can you relate?

Disruptions in our sleeping patterns can lead to decreased energy and exhaustion, as well as difficulties in concentrating and remembering information.  Irritability and restlessness are also possible side effects. 

# Feeling hopeless, guilty, and worthless.

I suppose that most postgraduate students feel inadequate at some point during their education. If this feeling lingers, it may be an indication of a mental health condition.

# Using substances or alcohol to cope

Many postgrads use substances or alcohol to self-medicate in order to cope with the stress of their studies. The dilemma is that while these can temporarily relieve tension, they also worsen stressors and related symptoms over time. 

# Thinking about death or suicide

Whether it was a fleeting notion or a serious consideration, if you have pondered death, suicide, self-harm, or attempted suicide as a strategy to relieve stress, you should get immediate help. Many universities have on-campus free counselling services. Find out about these early on, so that if you need them it is easier to reach out. There are also a number of internet resources that may be useful. At the very least, tell a trusted family member or close friend that you’ve been feeling this way.

Being a postgraduate student is a tremendous accomplishment! Challenging, but exciting. Keep in mind that science is filled with failed trials, and exploratory efforts. If at first you do not succeed, it is not a reflection on your ability, but rather a necessary step in the process. Join scientific associations that will assist you in the process and surround yourself with scholars who will encourage you. Most importantly, plan ahead to consider how you will manage this unspoken burden.

Available resourceContact number
Substance Abuse Helpline  0800 121314 / 32312 (SMS)
Alcoholics Anonymous SA National Helpline0861 435 722
Suicide crisis line0800 567 567 / 3193 (SMS)
Depression and Mental Health Helpline0800 567 567
Lifeline0861 322 322
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group0800 12 13 14
Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline0800 70 80 90
Online counsellorshttps://www.vitanova.co.za/counselling-services/free-counselling-services/
Online counsellorshttps://www.7cups.com/
Alcoholics Anonymous Online meetingshttps://aasouthafrica.org.za/meetings/?tsml-type=ONL

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