Susanna was experiencing insomnia that began to interfere with her work and life. She visited the campus health clinic, and they referred her to mental health resources on campus.
There, the doctor recommended medication for depression and anxiety, and therapy to work through the issues that were interfering with her sleep.
“We’re actually really worried that you’re severely depressed,” the doctor explained. Susanna’s reply: “No, I’m just in grad school!”
There’s no question that graduate training is stressful. Rotations, qualifying exams, committee meetings, and the constant struggle to make experiments work can push every student toward the boiling point.
But lurking under Susanna’s protest is a dangerous assumption many of us share. We believe that anxiety, depression, sleeplessness and other symptoms of mental illness are a required and normal side effect of graduate training.
And we’re not wrong. A recent study published in Nature Biotechnology (summary here) found roughly 40% of graduate trainees measured in the ‘moderate to severe’ range for depression and anxiety. The authors surveyed over 2,200 trainees in 26 countries, in fields ranging from the humanities to the biological and physical sciences.
In contrast, moderate-to-severe depression affects just 6% of the general population when measured with the same inventory.
“Our results show that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population,” the study says.
These alarming numbers reveal a latent mental health crisis brewing in our classrooms, labs and libraries. But what can we do about it?