Columns Indian Scenario

Hidden in plain sight: A mental health crisis in academia (Part 1)

Debdutta Paul, Annapoorna P K & Shreya Ghosh

While the importance of addressing mental health concerns within academic circles has been recognized time and again, progress has been hampered due to many factors, not the least of which is a paucity of data. This article is the first in a two-part series where we will examine the status of mental health awareness within Indian academia and discuss possible strategies and interventions to improve the situation. Part 2 can be read here.

Mental Health Survey1

The research ecosystem in India arguably employs some of the best minds in the country. However, this population also includes some of those most vulnerable to mental health issues and challenges. So far, the conversation surrounding mental health in academia has been consistently driven by mental health disorders and their causes and consequences, thus playing a reactionary rather than a precautionary role.

Through a year-long study of mental health awareness within various academic institutions in India, we found that the level of general awareness regarding mental health itself is low within the academic community. This raises concerns about the effectiveness of mental health-related awareness and education campaigns, as well as about the thrust of policy directives aimed at improving the mental health situation within these institutes. 

Surveys conducted in other countries have found that a large fraction of researchers suffer from or are at a high risk of developing mental illness. Graduate students are more likely to develop mental illness as compared to other highly educated groups. In the Indian context, there is a dearth of statistical data about the mental health of academicians. We attempted to fill this gap partially, by following two approaches.

  1. An anonymous open online survey circulated within academics across India between August and October 2019, which received 883 responses.
  2. One-on-one interviews with academics from 31 research institutions spread across the country.

The survey was circulated through social media channels, newsletters, as well as through direct peer-to-peer communication. We acknowledge that due to the nature of its sampling and distribution, the survey may overrepresent certain communities, including those more familiar with social media or belonging to top-tier institutes. We hope that similar studies inspired by the current one will address this gap in the future and help build on this dataset. 

We would also like to note here that the answers our respondents provided to the survey questions reflect their individual beliefs and worldviews and are, therefore, inherently subjective in nature. The percentages and numbers quoted in this article should also be viewed through this lens. 

While we used the survey to gain preliminary insights into the levels of mental health awareness within the academic populace, our aim with the interviews was to delve deeper into these issues with the help of a targeted subset of the community. While these datasets are not fully representative, we hoped that this combined approach would let us strike a balance and bring out the salient features of the situation. 

Primarily, we sought to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the level of awareness about mental health within the scientific community?
  2. What are the major causes of mental health-related issues in academia?
  3. How accessible is mental health-related help on our university or institute campuses?

Finally, we also sought recommendations on what can be done to improve the status of mental health within Indian academia. In this first article, we will attempt to answer the first two questions based on the survey and the responses of the target group, while the next article will focus on the availability of mental health support structures and recommendations for improving the situation for all involved. 

Our survey respondents comprised mostly PhD and MSc students, with a significant number of responses from undergraduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty, hailing from 209 different institutes, colleges, and universities. 14% of the respondents were faculty or independent researchers, 6% were postdoctoral fellows, 33% were PhD students, and 41% were Bachelor’s or Master’s students. The remaining were junior research fellows (JRFs), research interns, scientific staff, or researchers currently between positions. 

From the answers provided by the survey respondents, it appears that in most institutions, there is no clear dissemination of information regarding mental health. Only 11% of the respondents said that their institutions hold regular seminars and discussions for mental health awareness. Only about 19% of respondents reported that their institute’s library or website had any reading material related to mental health and almost 78% said that there are no preventive peer support groups on campus.

accessibility mental health

A whopping 59% of those who took the survey admitted to having faced mental health-related issues during their academic career either in the past or present. Within this group, 82% admitted to never having been officially diagnosed. This is indicative of the fact that mental health issues are normalised in academia, and many sufferers are hesitant to seek professional help.

When we investigated this figure further, we found that 68% of the PhD students and 65% of the Master’s students who took the survey reported having faced mental health issues during their stay in an institute. Although the number of postdoctoral fellows and interns/​JRFs who took the survey was relatively less, 64% of these respondents also admitted to having faced mental health issues. Interestingly, 35% of members of faculty or principal investigators reported having had mental health concerns. These statistics, on the whole, align with the findings of other surveys that show PhD and Master’s students are particularly vulnerable to mental health challenges. Based on this, we decided to focus primarily on these groups for our direct interviews. 

From the interviews conducted on the target dataset, we found that exceptions aside, many academics, including those hailing from some of the premier institutions in the country, had grave misconceptions about mental health and psychiatric conditions. For example, some interviewees commonly and casually labelled states of sadness as depression. On the other hand, some interviewees dismissed potentially serious cases of depression as being trivial or temporary fluctuations of mood. Many subscribed to the belief that mental health concerns arise from a lack of maturity’ or strength’.

The responses to our survey also indicate that while the academic environment is not the only cause for poor mental health, it potentially plays a big role in aggravating existing personal, social, and economic concerns amongst academicians, impairing their general mental well-being.

A careful analysis of the responses from the survey as well as the responses from the target group of interviewees led us to identify a set of commonly prevalent reasons for poor mental health conditions in Indian academia, listed below.

  • Skewed hierarchy in favour of those higher up on the academic ladder, e.g. professors
  • Strained student-advisor relationships
  • Inhumane work hours
  • Lack of work-life balance
  • The publish or perish’ culture 
  • Unhealthy levels of competition and peer pressure 
  • Poor remuneration for those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy
  • Lack of job security
  • Lack of exposure to future non-academic job prospects
  • Social hierarchies of caste and gender

Professors talk about the importance of work-life balance on social media platforms. Despite that, we all know well that they themselves don’t let their own graduate students and postdocs practice it,” said an anonymous respondent of the survey, citing examples from their own department in a premier research institute in India.

A few respondents highlighted how academic hierarchy can take some very ugly forms. I have come across many cases wherein supervisors had threatened PhD students and used vulgar, derogatory words to address and downgrade their morale,” said one respondent, If someone complained against them, the institute did not take serious actions against their employees, and later on they too issued warnings against the students to suppress their voice.”

Distorted and sometimes arbitrary benchmarks of academic performance can be another major source of stress among graduate students. Students are continually informed of what a successful, dedicated individual should behave like. This stereotypical, incorrect view is damaging,” said another respondent, It is not communicated clearly that there are other valid ways to be successful.”

The only well-accepted measure of success is publication,” said one of the interviewees, who prefers to remain anonymous. Pointing to the lack of clarity of what exactly defines academic performance, they added, It may take years of failed attempts to get one good’ publication, and this entire time it is entirely unclear if there is any real progress. This uncertainty can be mentally exhausting.”

Unrealistically high expectations and a low tolerance for failure can be another source of stress for many researchers. Academia selects for intellectually driven, highly motivated, focused individuals who set high standards for themselves,” said Karishma Kaushik, Assistant Professor at Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology (IBB), Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU), Pune, Any delays or deviations along this path mean that highly successful people have to encounter and work around a situation where they do not see themselves as successful’, which certainly creates stress, pressure and mental distress.” 

Many who took the survey reported feeling isolated in their research life, even while surrounded by peers. Several respondents admitted that their loneliness is increased by the lack of community support. Almost 40% of the respondents who faced mental health concerns said that they were unable to talk to anyone about their issues.

Many respondents also commented on the subtle and pervasive taboo against talking about mental health, a point that is perhaps proven by the fact that the majority of the survey respondents and interviewees chose to remain anonymous. In my experience as a young investigator, mental health has been an extremely closed issue in higher academia, rarely, if ever, spoken about,” said Kaushik. 

We conclude that there is an urgent need to normalise conversations regarding mental health and to ensure that they are not restricted to short-term reactions to mental health concerns or associated tragedies. I think a willingness to admit to major and minor mental health concerns would go a long way,” said Gagandeep Kang, Professor, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Frequently, the ones who need help most are the ones with the least insight.” 

Despite the high prevalence of mental health issues, only 18% of the respondents said that they received help through counselling or therapy services available in their institution. Moreover, only 45% of the respondents said that they could talk to someone who was supportive. When asked whether their institutes/​universities provide counselling services, 40% of the respondents answered in the negative. Moreover, about 43% admitted that they don’t know whom to contact in case of a mental health crisis. These statistics point to an intensifying mental health crisis in Indian academia.

In the next article in this series, we will address in further detail the availability of mental health-related help within different academic institutions in India and list a set of recommendations for improving this situation derived from our study.