Under pressure

Clinical Brief – August 8th

The Brief

A study in Research Policy found that about a half of PhD students had psychological distress, and a third had a common psychiatric disorder.

Signs point to a greater risk for women, being exposed to a “laissez-faire” leadership style, and being at an early stage of the PhD program.


Tell me more

A group from Flanders, Belgium, surveyed about 3,600 PhD students from Flemish universities on their mental health status and compared it against available data on highly educated individuals in the general population, employees, and students.

Students from nearly every discipline were involved, including the sciences, biomed, humanities, and social sciences. Overall, 51% of PhD students had psychological distress and 32% had a common psychiatric disorder. The odds of having such problems seemed to be equal across disciplines.

When it comes to risk factors for such problems, some of their findings are quite expected. For instance, higher work load and a conflict between work and family demands were tied greater odds of psychological distress and developing a common psychiatric disorder.


Unexpected results

Gender…whether this is expected or unexpected may be debatable, but the report found that the odds of experiencing psychological distress were 34% higher for women than men.

Supervisor…according to the report, “no significant association were found between an autocratic leadership style and the experience of mental health problems”. But this didn’t mean that the supervisor didn’t have any role to play. It turned out that a “laissez-faire” leadership style was tied to an increased risk of psychological distress.

No significant association were found between an autocratic leadership style and the experience of mental health problems


A silver lining

Completing a PhD program is clearly not for the faint of heart. The study did find that compared to students who just started their PhD program, those who are already on their way had lower odds of experiencing mental health problems.

In other words, once the ball gets rolling it just may get better with time.

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