Depressive disorders high among PhD students

Study identifies key factors affecting mental health and inhibiting academic performance

Published - November 12, 2021 08:10 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

A survey conducted among PhD students in two public universities in Kerala has reported that close to 70% of the students suffer from mild to severe depressive disorders.

While 41.7% suffered from mild depression, 17.9% had moderate, 6.7% moderately severe, and 2.1% severe depressive disorders.

Students belonging to economically weaker sections, those having limited knowledge of local language and those earning less than ₹20,000/month were more likely to report moderate to severe depressive disorders.

The study, which surveyed 240 PhD students using a self-administered patient health questionnaire, followed by in-depth interviews, also reported that financial hardships, disagreement between student and supervisor, lack of student support services, and concerns about an uncertain job market and future were the key factors affecting the mental health of students and inhibiting their academic performance.

“Prevalence and underlying factors of depressive disorders among PhD students: a mixed-method study in the Indian context”, a study by, LT, L., Hense, S., Kodali, P.B.B. and Thankappan, K.R. (2021), Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, Central University of Kerala, appears in the Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education .

The quantitative data were collected and analysed from 240 PhD students. Half of the students recruited were from science stream and the other half from the non-science streams pursuing full-time PhD.

The prevalence of depressive disorders among university students is estimated to be six times more than the general population. In the case of PhD students, extended working hours, academic stress, lack of supervisory support, financial insecurities and uncertainties over future are commonly reported factors causing depressive disorders.

Some of the challenges narrated by the students during interviews were primarily related to laboratory, library, administrative support, communication, student support services, and use of technology on campus. These challenges compromised their quality of research work, inhibited learning opportunities, and left them feeling demotivated and dejected.

The interviews observed the “unpleasant” state of supervisor-student relationship, with “disagreement often leading to mistrust and conflict”. One of the grievances against supervisors was that they did not devote adequate time in guiding the students or in understanding their difficulties.

Financial challenges emerged as one of the key concerns, potentially inhibiting students’ academic performance and their mental health.

Research scholars faced many financial hardships as the scholarship amount paid by the university was insufficient to meet the daily expenses. Even this paltry amount was often much delayed, affecting even daily sustenance.

The study highlighted the growing mental health issues among research students and called for health promotion activities in the university curriculum. Researchers pointed out that as financial difficulties seemed to put the students under much stress, administrative delays in sanctioning research fellowships could be avoided.

Researchers have suggested strengthening student-support services and organising regular curricular activities as important activities to build healthy relationships between students and supervisors.

The study pointed out that many issues of students could be easily handled at the university-level. However, systemic and policy interventions in a coordinated manner involving students, university, higher education regulatory body (UGC), industry bodies/ employers and the Ministry of Higher Education might be required to improve the mental well being of students engaged in higher studies and to ensure that the research work produced by universities was dynamic and fruitful.

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