Breaking the cliche: A talk on Psychological well-being of Ph.D. students

Science and technology homology has made rapid strides, but sadly enough with the increasing literacy rate of the country, there is a decline in the mental progress of the generation. The present generation is fragile and more prone to fall prey in the hands of the vicious circle of unhealthy mental setup. So, it is consequential to break our stereotypes, get out of the hyped culture that treats ‘psychological well-being’ as something very aberrant and illicit.

  This week, the First International Conference on the Mental Health & Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers will take place in Brighton, UK. The goal of the two-day meeting (which is sold out) is to address a simple, urgent truth: that many Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers are overworked and overstressed — and their mental health is suffering because of it. In simple terms, their psychological well-being is at stake.

This bizarre picture of reality has become clear from studies over the past few years. One, of a group of Ph.D. students in Flanders, Belgium, found that they were more than twice as likely to suffer from mental health difficulties than the highly educated population in general, and that one-third of them either had or were at risk of developing, a psychiatric disorder. A survey of doctoral students at the University of Arizona in Tucson found that around three-quarters were under ‘more than average’ stress. When Nature has covered these issues, readers have flooded us with personal stories of frustration and distress.

With the upcoming bunch of young researchers falling prey in the hands of disturbed psychology, the foster of scientific temperament will lie at a dark phase. So, there’s a need to speak openly on psychological well – being and get an idea of what it is about.

In clinical language, Psychological well-being refers to positive mental health. Research has shown that psychological well-being is a diverse multidimensional concept which develops through a combination of emotional regulation, personality characteristics, and identity and life experiences. At the most basic level, psychological well-being (PWB) is quite similar to other terms that refer to positive mental states, such as happiness or satisfaction, and in many ways, it is not necessary, or helpful to worry about fine distinctions between such terms.

To maintain a balanced psychological health, one should focus on six inter-related psychological dimensions: positive evaluation of one’s self, a sense of continued growth and development, the belief that life is purposeful and meaningful, the possession of quality relations with others, the capacity to manage effectively one’s life, and a sense of self-determination.

With growing concerns of health issues and detarted psychology among budding young talents which easily gets webbed admits peer pressure, inferiority complex and competitive trauma, a specific psychotherapeutic strategy for increasing psychological  well-being and resilience, the well-being therapy (WBT), has been developed and tested in a number of randomized  controlled trials (Fava & Tomba 2009). The application of WBT, in addition to standard cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), to patients with recurrent depression who responded to drug treatment was found to yield a significantly lower relapse rate at a 6-year follow-up compared to clinical management (Fava, Rafanelli, & Tomba 2011). Further, the sequential combination of CBT and WBT has been found to induce a higher degree of remission, as shown by both distress and well-being scales, compared to CBT alone in generalized anxiety disorder, with advantages persisting at a 2-year follow-up (Fava, Ruini, & Rafanelli 2005). A recent randomized controlled trial in cyclothymia has yielded additional insights. Sixty-two patients with DSM-IV cyclothymiacs disorder were randomly assigned to CBT/WBT or CM. At post-treatment, significant differences were found on all outcome measures, with greater improvements after treatment in the CBT/WBT group compared to the CM group. Therapeutic gains were maintained at 1- and 2-year follow-ups. These results imply that a sequential combination of CBT and WBT, addressing both polarities of mood swings and co-morbid anxiety yields significant and persistent benefits in cyclothymiacs disorder. This investigation suggests that it is the balance among the various psychological dimensions that matter the most to maintain a healthy mental state.

Solutions are at hand. Firstly, one built up the courage to speak freely on mental health effacing all those pejorative notions of being judged , secondly youths should learn the key values of self-acceptance and self-growth, a constant trial to help oneself grow better by understanding all those negative notions that retard their mental state and uprooting them from their very base is a call of the hour. Thirdly, Supervisors need comprehensive, compulsory training to identify, assist and understand researchers facing mental-health problems. Students could have more than one supervisor so that they can find support without worrying about damaging their career. Universities need to make sure that the mental health services they admirably make available to undergraduates also reach graduate students and postdocs. And academia must learn to respect the work-life balance that many researchers struggle to find.

A dedicated conference is an encouraging sign that postgraduate mental health is being taken seriously. But much more must be done to protect future generations from losing their potential and succumbing in the hands of distress and agony.

Ankita Boruah

Ankita Boruah is a final year BSc Chemistry student at Cotton University, Assam.


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