The 4th Wave: COVID-19 Pandemic Exacerbates the Mental Health Crisis in Graduate Students

Article by Stephanie Tran

Graphic design by Ingrid Barany

Pandemic impacts mental health in the general population

In March 2020, U.S. critical care physician Dr. Victor Tseng predicted the Covid-19 pandemic would unfold in a series of waves. Following the virus’s infectious waves, a wave of psychological trauma, mental illness, and burnout will be the pandemic’s “largest and most sustained effect”1 Half a year later, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) partnered with a research technology company, Delvinia, and conducted a series of five national surveys that supported this prediction.2 The surveys tracked mental health changes in over 1000 English-speaking Canadians between May and September. Over 20% of responders indicated they experienced moderate to severe anxiety and felt both lonely and depressed. Interestingly, the highest prevalence of these feelings was observed in the 18-39 age group, while the lowest was in the 60+ age group. These surveys highlight the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on mental health in young adults,

Mental health in graduate students: A crisis

Graduate students are a unique demographic. They are local experts, conducting cutting-edge research, and form the next generation of scientists, educators, leaders, and innovators. Yet, they are at risk of mental health illness.

In 2018, a study made headlines with findings that “graduate students are six times more likely to experience anxiety and depression as compared to the general population.”3 While this number has been disputed due to the lack of controls, other studies have found similarly high rates. When comparing Ph.D. students to those with higher education in the general population, Ph.D. students have a higher prevalence of mental health issues and are more likely to develop depression.4 With over 175 000 graduate students in Canada, this is creating a so-called “invisible crisis”.5

So, why are graduate students showing poor mental health? Early this year, psychologist Dr. Astrid Muller discussed this problem in an article titled, “Mental health disorders: prevalent but widely ignored in academia?”.5 She states that “the usually high workload, often associated with externally prescribed deadlines, competition for research resources, and uncertain job prospects can have an adverse impact on mental health. Problems may be aggravated by poor management practice as well as insufficient recognition and reward”. In agreement with her article, other authors note that graduate students also feel imposter syndrome, isolation, and financial stress6, all of which can be detrimental to mental wellbeing.  In a survey polling over 2000 Ontarian graduate students, nearly 70% reported that they were anxious about their degree timeline and felt pressured to overwork.7

Pandemic exacerbates the mental health crisis in graduate students

With graduate students experiencing higher than normal mental health issues, how are they affected by the pandemic? The Toronto Science Policy Network conducted a survey to answer this question. Graduate students from 45 Canadian universities were polled between April and May.8 Of 1431 respondents, most came from the life and physical sciences. Nearly half the respondents indicated that the pandemic would impact their ability to complete their degree, and over one-quarter considered taking a leave of absence. Compared to pre-pandemic, concerns about finances tripled during the pandemic, with over one-third of the respondents indicating financial stress.  Graduate students reported experiencing an increase in mental health issues, with 77% feeling anxious, 72% feeling overwhelmed, 76% feeling lonely and 63% feeling depressed. Overall, 72% reported that these feelings increased due to COVID-19.

Back in March 2020, critical care physician Dr. Victor Tseng warned about the pandemic’s mental health “aftershocks”

Increased mental health issues in response to the pandemic have similarly been reported in graduate students worldwide. In Australia, the pandemic increased graduate students’ stress related to finances, scholarships, and the ability to meet deadlines.9 In the UK, a survey of nearly 6000 graduate students found that most students (75%) were unable to conduct their research, had poor mental wellbeing, and showed mental distress.10 While in the US, a large-sample survey found research doctoral students had the highest overall prevalence of major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder compared to undergraduate, master’s, and professional students. 11 Compared to the 2019 survey results, graduate student depression nearly doubled, while anxiety increased by 1.5 times during the pandemic. Furthermore, the survey found the prevalence of depression and anxiety varied by field. Depression was most prevalent in the life sciences, while anxiety was most prevalent in biomedical research.

Acknowledging the graduate student mental health crisis and call for change

Pre-COVID-19, Nature demanded “urgent attention” for the mental health of Ph.D. researchers.12 Now, we must acknowledge that the pandemic has exaggerated the existing mental health issues in our graduate students. As these trainees go on to become experts in all sectors of the economy, ignoring the mental health crisis in this population could negatively impact future research and innovation.

Dr. Astrid Muller acknowledges a major problem with mental illness – “most people with mental disorders suffer in silence”.5 In Ontario, students refrain from discussing mental health problems for four main reasons: fear of reprisal, fear of reporting to those who are part of the problem, the uncertainty of where to seek help, and the inability to commit the time to undergo the formal complaint process.7 Many students also have an anxiety of failing or appearing weak.7 As the stigma surrounding mental health continues to exist in academia, this mental health crisis will continue to surge.

Raising awareness of this mental health crisis is critical to creating an environment where mental health can be discussed openly. This movement has become widely popular on Twitter, with many academics freely discussing their graduate school and mental health problems. Students share the ups and downs of completing a degree via hashtags like #PhDLife, while accounts such as @PhD_Balance are run by and for graduate students to provide advice for improving resilience and learning through shared experience. This online platform has become a supportive community which we should strive to mirror in our institutions.

While open communication will not solve the mental health crisis, it is the first step to inducing change. Research expectations need to be adjusted to reduce anxieties related to conducting research, meeting deadlines, and degree completion, especially in these unprecedented times. Institutions need to provide more mental health support, including training for supervisors, faculty, and staff to recognize signs of distress before it escalates. It is vital to acknowledge the impact of this pandemic on the graduate student mental health crisis and to drive change to ensure that they no longer suffer in silence.