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Speculative Diction

PhD education and mental health: A follow-up


As my first post for 2012, I want to provide a bit of a follow-up to my previous piece about PhD students and mental health issues.

Though I always had the sense there was a problem with mental health in grad school and especially during the PhD, I was still surprised by the intense reaction to my post. As I write this, there are 38 comments (not counting the one I left myself). Some of these comments are very moving and all of them are refreshingly honest, and I’m extremely thankful that so many of you shared your experiences and insights. Throughout this post I will link to your comments directly.

Through Twitter, Facebook, and the comments on my post, many relevant points were raised. Some people discussed an assumed “ideal” for PhD students, and a sense of guilt and self-doubt they felt when they “failed” to live up to this, which in turn can be exacerbated by the isolation of the process and by the apparent lack of structure in advanced academic work. Others mentioned the persistently gendered (masculine) nature of the scholarly ideal, with women being affected by systemic biases that implicate them differently in academic work as well as in parenthood and family life. Bumblebee wrote that the effect of PhD problems on intimate relationships could be disastrous, particularly without institutional support.

I focused on some of the structural issues in PhD education because I think they contribute to a “pluralistic ignorance” — the fact that a student may believe that she is the only one with a problem, and blame herself for it as well, even while others are experiencing the same thing. Several people commented that compounded by insecurity and isolation, the lack of acknowledgment of and open discussion about depression and mental health issues — the “silence” associated with stigma — is actually the most significant problem because it prevents students from seeking help either from the university or from their peers.

Another effect of silence is that prospective students cannot necessarily make an informed decision about whether to enter a PhD program at the outset (and which program and supervisor to choose). Marketization of higher education is problematic because it encourages institutions to persuade students to enroll rather than informing them about their “best fit” for the program or department. A PhD program tends to be a “black box” in terms of information about problematic aspects of the course and/or the negative experiences of students. This is only compounded by not asking students who leave about the reasons for their departure (reasons that are not always negative—as noted by Alex O).

In another comment, Lil makes the crucial point that accessing support services on campuses can be a trial in itself. Students need somewhere else to turn for support and perspective when significant academic relationships begin to turn sour. But it can take time — sometimes weeks — to land an appointment with a counsellor, and in some cases students will be speaking with a trainee rather than an experienced professional. Usually they will be speaking with someone who is not familiar with the PhD process and the kinds of issues that can arise during it. Often there are a limited number of appointments available to each student in a given period, and since these services tend not to be covered by available health benefits, the student may not be able to afford to go anywhere else for help. Some students may feel too uncomfortable even to seek out professional assistance, which requires a kind of self-exposure that can be off-putting.

Of course not everyone who enters a PhD program will suffer from mental health problems. Students with a lack of social and academic support and/or past histories of depression are more likely to be vulnerable (and this applies to other high-level forms of education as well). But it’s important to consider carefully the nature of academic environment and the ways in which it can affect students’ experiences, both the good and the bad. Graduate students, like all students, are not only learning but also becoming different people; they are “changed” by their experience, and this includes the psychological and the emotional as well as the academic and professional.

Many of the comments I received thanked me for being brave enough to write publicly about this issue. On the one hand it’s disturbing to me that there is such a lack of public discussion in spite of the apparent pervasiveness of the problem. Then again, if my posts can be used as a way to open the door to that discussion, then I’m happy about it indeed.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Dale Reardon / January 4, 2012 at 01:32


    I don’t know if it works this way in Canada but maybe you need to investigate similar issues. If you follow my link you’ll read my comments on the Australian PhD funding system. It adversely effects those who have suffered mental health problems.

    Universities receive the majority of their funding for a PhD student only once the person completes so the University is reluctant to take on a person who has had problems in the past as they may fail to complete again and then the University receives no funding for the time they invest.

    Special situations need to be worked out to encourage Universities to take on such students.

    There are also problems with scholarships which I discuss.

    Really glad to see you discussing such issues.

    Twitter: @DaleReardon

  2. Erik / January 4, 2012 at 16:42

    Your sense and concern is most correct; student health issues have been rapidly growing since 2008. I love your blog, keep up the great work! You have a keen sense for sniffing out contentious and taboo subjects that Universities should be seriously paying attention too.

  3. Amelia Kennedy / January 4, 2012 at 16:45

    Hi Melanie – Perhaps you would be interested in submitting an abstract for the 13th Canadian Collaborative Mental Healthcare Conference taking place June 2012 in Vancouver, BC. You can find more information at

  4. Laura / January 4, 2012 at 17:11

    Thank you for raising this complex and often avoided topic across university campuses (and as a PhD candidate no less)! Upon entering the PhD program @ the University of Alberta, the Education professor responsible for many of the required doctoral courses often told us about the strains of doing PhD studies on marriages and close personal relationships. In fact, I recall him beginning his doctoral seminars with such a statement and quoting statistics! He also encouraged us to seek help on campus, if required. After our 1st seminar, I remember sharing this professor’s insights with my husband (we’re still happily married) and making a conscious decision to periodically review my social and family support system through this competitive and demanding program. Studying at a research-intensive university had its pros, but also disadvantages. I will always be grateful for the Thursday group of women who met religiously at The Sugar Bowl for beverages and conversation.

  5. Sarah / January 4, 2012 at 21:26

    Thank you Melonie for doing a follow up piece. It seems such a taboo subject for fear of showing ‘weakness’. One approach which really experienced academics shared with me when I first started lecturing was the importance of ‘mental health days’. They encouraged me to feel that this was not ‘pulling a sicky’ but actually an important way of recharging the batteries. This meant leaving all work behind and doing something which makes you feel happy, relaxed and at peace without feeling guilty about the work you might be missing. It was a very valid piece of information which I definitely took on board, although realising when I needed a mental health day took a long time to learn!!

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