Mental health and wellbeing of PhD students

IHW Phd student Jelena Milicev reports back on recent research into the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate research students, which found higher rates of depression and anxiety among female and LGBTQ+ students than the general population. 

Photo of trans and lgbt flags

Student mental health and wellbeing have been the focus of many recent studies, which have repeatedly shown high rates of self-reported symptoms.

Prevalence of anxiety and depression among postgraduate research students varies from around 30% in Belgium40% in the UK and up to around 50% in the States. Many of these studies highlight risk factors such as female and non-binary gender, and minority sexual orientation.

Our recent study published in Current Psychology is no exception. We had 479 participants from 47 different universities in the UK, aged between 21 and 73. Most of them were studying at Scottish universities. Around 3 quarters identified as female and reported a heterosexual orientation. 12% identified as bisexual and 6% as homosexual.

Mental health and wellbeing of female and LGBTQ+ students

We found much higher rates of mental ill-health than in the general population. Namely, around 40% of the sample were experiencing anxiety, depression, insomnia and suicidal ideation. Slightly higher rates applied to the females, and yet higher rates to the PGRs who identified as members of the LGBT+ community.

We looked at a variety of individual, academic, relational, and cultural factors as predictors of these mental health outcomes. While we found that most of them were predicted by traits such as resilience, workaholism and perfectionism, we also identified female gender as a risk factor for depression, and non-binary gender as a risk for reduced subjective wellbeing, which was also the case for homosexual orientation. Finally, bisexual and ‘other’ sexual orientations were associated with an increased risk of insomnia and suicidal ideation.

While the same risk factors apply to the general population mental health, there are several things that might be underpinning them in the academic and research environment. Across national contexts, female and LGBT+ staff and students report experiences of inequality, discrimination, hostility, intimidation, marginalisation and silencing. Both vicarious and experienced discrimination can cause significant stress and increase the risk of poorer physical and mental health, which, in combination with other stressors related to postgraduate research, may contribute to the vulnerability of female and LGBT+ research students. This is why universities need to be proactive and committed to ending bullying and discrimination and increasing diversity. On a more concrete level, departments should implement policies and procedures to create inclusive and supportive communities that facilitate optimal academic functioning and emotional wellbeing of all members.

Jelena Milicev
Postgraduate researcher
MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit 

Read the full paper

First published: 2 May 2018