Gaining more insight into mental health among doctoral students at KI

Authors: Filipa Bouçanova and Emelie Braun

Pursuing a PhD is not an easy task -especially in the midst of a pandemic -a challenge that most of us were unprepared for. The Covid19 pandemic has displayed the challenges that PhD students face, especially our mental health struggles. With the goal of better understanding the difficulties of the PhD community at KI, the DSA ran a survey last summer and the results are staggering, but not surprising.

“I’m doing OK”
When asked about their overall well-being at work, the majority of the 462 respondents gave a positive response (71.9%) but a significant proportion reported being unhappy (28%) or even feeling terrible (1.1% or 5 respondents). On a scale of 1-10, more than half report a stress level of 6 or more and a third of students state that they are unable to relax, they feel tense (67.7%) and have lost sleep over feeling worried (45.7%). A troubling 37% have experienced sudden feelings of panic and over 40% consider themselves depressed. 

It is important for PhD students to understand what an acceptable level of stress is and to develop healthy boundaries in their lives. Some stress is “positive”: you have a deadline in a month and you’re doing your best to achieve it or you want to finish your experiments before going on vacation. This type of stress may come in bursts and alternate with less intense periods. Another type of stress is “negative”: you have been working weekdays and weekends for months on end, you consistently work more than 8 hours per day or 40 hours per week and you wake up dreading to do a job that you are supposed to love. One out of ten students reported that they actively avoid their colleagues and nearly one out of three feel that their supervisor contributes to a worsening of their mental health.

Supervision, overtime and “publish or perish”
In open-ended (anonymous) questions, many students mention their relationship with their supervisor as a major negative point in their experience at KI. Some supervisors seem to lack pedagogical and team management skills, leaving their students to figure out their projects with little to no guidance. Other points that stand out are the pressure to constantly produce data when, more often than not, experiments fail. The expectation is often to work long hours and weekends, the absence of clear milestones, and there is an impression that the work is never done. This commonly tends to cause a stereotypical imposter syndrome and a constant feeling of not being ‘good enough’. 

PhD students tend to be intelligent, driven, and passionate individuals. They are persistent and motivated, but also insecure in the sense that they are afraid of disappointing the expectations of others as well as their own. Students usually do not realize that they are not alone, there are others around us who feel or have felt the same. In this context, it is important to have a sense of community. The Covid19 pandemic has sent many of us to work from home or to work alone in the lab while we are used to working side-by-side with our colleagues. The adaptation has been difficult for many, with almost half of students stating that their work environment has worsened, as well as their supervision (32.7%) and stress level (44.6%). Many students report resorting to certain behaviours to cope with their stress, such as abusing alcohol or other substances (11.7%), under- or over-eating (48.4%), social isolation (55.5%), and decreased self-care (52.3%). In a survey conducted by Nature in 2019 that was targeted towards PhD students globally, a third had sought help for anxiety and depression which seemed to correlate with disrupted work-life balance and overworking hours, financial support as well as the level of expectations that are commonly present in academia (Woolston 2019).

Your mental health is precious 
Our mental health is constantly challenged throughout the course of life. Although commonly affecting people in all age groups and professions, mental illness is noticeably high among PhD students. Seeking help due to mental health problems is becoming less stigmatized and mental health services offered to students are increasing among universities. It is important to realize that just as you go seek help to fix a wound or a knee injury at the general practitioner, you should strongly consider reaching out and asking for help to kick start the ‘healing process’. Our brain and mind are in fact constantly in use, even as we are asleep, and require a constant supply of fuel. Especially now during the pandemic, many people experience intense periods as they lose daily routines and get annoyed because they start to walk on top of their family members that they face every day at home. Conversely, there are many single households (which is often the case in Sweden) that cause many people to feel too isolated without almost any social interactions. We are all part of this difficult time and experience strange and sudden emotions that we sometimes cannot explain. In the end, you may feel stuck with your own thoughts playing on repeat in your head and ask yourself what will be next. Remember, take one day at a time, and do not forget to fuel your brain and mind! Your mental health is precious. 

How can we help?
Currently, the student union (MF/DSA) and KI offer the following services that PhD students can turn to:

  • the Ombudperson, an impartial representative with whom you can discuss matters related to your supervisor, department, etc. (https://phdsa.se/ombudsperson/
  • Avonova, an occupational healthcare provider (replaced Previa). You can call them on 0200-21 63 00 for a phone consultation or book an appointment.
  • Student health center, phone number 08-524 835 70.
  • The University Chaplaincy, if you are in need of talking with someone due to a life issue, a special hurt or if you are struggling to cope (you don’t have to be Christian or religious), Elisabet Ravelojaona, 070-758 55 61, elisabet.ravelojaona@andreaskyrkan.se 
  • Lifestyle online questionnaires with personalized feedback https://response.alexit.se/?language=EN&accountId=111&hj=null&w=null

The DSA would like to welcome every PhD student to join us in helping to build a supportive community. A lot of our work is done through 5 workgroups: Doctoral education, student representation, welfare and health, social events, and PR. Contact the respective workgroup manager if you would like to contribute. We will also host a number of social events on our own, as well as in collaboration with other organisations at KI, e.g. trivia nights, game nights, fikas, etc. Keep an eye out on our social media: Twitter ( @DSAkarolinska ), Instagram ( @ dsa.karolinska ) and Facebook ( @ dsa.karolinska ) for updates. Never hesitate to contact us for any and everything you might need.

We are here for you, EVERY step of your PhD journey!

Sources
Woolston, Chris. 2019. “PhDs: The Tortuous Truth.” Nature 575 (7782): 403–6. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-03459-7.

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