The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that UC Berkeley conducted a survey of rates of depression and psychological well-being among its graduate students. They are high, which, the Chron says “surprised and alarmed” the experts when previous results came out. The suprise of the experts led others to wonder whether they were qualified to conduct the survey, since they had evidently never been in grad school themselves.
This current iteration finds that that 47% of Ph.D. students are depressed, and among the Ph.D. students, the highest rate of depression — 64% — was in the arts and humanities. These numbers are even more striking because they are current prevalence rates, not prevalence rates over the whole duration of their grad school tenure.
The full report reveals that career prospects was the variable second-most predictive of well-being, and the fifth-most predictive of depression. Because predictors for well-being and depression unsurprisingly overlap a great deal, in their summary they present these predictors together, with career prospects the most important variable. Other important predictors were overall health, living conditions, academic engagement, social support, financial confidence, academic progress and preparation, sleep, feeling valued and included, and adviser relationship.
A couple points. The first should be uncontroversial, and yet sometimes gets lost in the course of describing mental illess as a pathology of the individual, as I was arguing a couple of weeks ago. The onset and course of mental illness is heavily influenced by the context of the sufferer. Stressful, demanding working environments and extreme economic precarity cause depression, even if they are not sufficient, in and of themselves, to cause depression.
The second point: I’m a little rueful that the question this report needs to pose for itself, “Why do we care about well-being?”, is answered primarily in terms of the grad students’ productivity:
We care because we want to enable graduate students to do their best work andmake the most of their time here. Balanced, happy people are more productive, more creative, more collaborative, better at long-term goal pursuit, more likely to find employment, more physically and psychologically resilient, and more.
But if institutions need to think of their members as cogs in order to build structures to treat them as more than cogs, it’s better than nothing.