A black dog is stalking academia. Student depression and anxiety have risen to record levels. One study claims that mental health problems have now reached crisis point. But what can we do about it?
The latest survey of graduate and masters students across 26 countries found that rates of depression and anxiety were six times those of the population at large. Perhaps the most worrying conclusion is that poor mentorship and a lack of support from advisers is contributing to the mental health issues of the students surveyed.
These results aren’t isolated findings. They seem to be part of a recent trend that appears to be reversing some of the gains made in recent years. Nearly five times as many UK students reported a mental health problem to their universities than a decade ago. Another study found that the suicide rate among UK students has risen 56% in the last 10 years and has now overtaken that of the general population in the 20–24 age range.
Getting the black dog off universities’ back is going to be tough. University study, particularly a PhD, can be a pressure cooker environment. Competition can be tough and good opportunities to get on – particularly climbing the academic ladder – are few and far between. Some of Chemistry World’s readers that have made it through higher education may feel that a chemistry degree or PhD was an experience that tempered them. They were tested and not found wanting. I would respectfully argue that this is an instance of survivor bias – just because you made it through without any additional support it doesn’t mean everyone can. Those that struggle at what is often a difficult time of life shouldn’t just be left to sink or swim. By providing just a bit more support – better training for mentors, career development advice and improving student mental health services – universities can ensure that as many students as possible can succeed. Universities in the UK are already recognising this and Universities UK’s step change programme is a solid starting place.
When England’s foremost man of letters at the time, Samuel Johnson, named his depression ‘the black dog’, isolation and loneliness were major contributors. Little has changed in 200 years. Being unable to admit that you have a problem for fear of the social stigma still associated with mental illness continues to isolate people today. We can all do our bit simply by talking openly about mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. It’s not a personal failing. Greater recognition of this not only helps people struggling with mental illness to feel less alone but also helps catalyse societal change to end the stigma of mental illness.