Depression in the Sciences

May 14, 2018

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Massachusetts highest court has ruled that MIT is not responsible for the suicide in 2009 of a twenty-five-year-old graduate student. MIT does have a higher suicide rate than other schools, but depression, anxiety, and suicide are a prevalent problem throughout academia.

David Reay is a professor of carbon management and education in the School of Geosciences at University of Edinburgh. He has written about his own struggle with depression during graduate school in the journal Nature.

Multiple studies have suggested that about a third of graduate students experience depression, which is far higher than prevalence among peers their age. It’s a high-pressure career, but there are other issues that make academia more prone to mental health issues, say Reay. He explains that students are away from home, in an environment that is new, and that their expectations of work - using new techniques, and new ways of working - can weigh heavily on individuals. When he was in graduate school, he personally pretended he was okay.

Reay made a few suggestions for universities and their advisors. They should, “Have empathy, and look out for mental health issues more. Also, advisors can ask about how they really are, not just how their work is going.” When he was in school twenty years ago, universities didn’t really mention mental health overtly. “But support systems now,” he said, are better than they were when he was in school.  

Reay believes that the more we normalize it, like any other illness, the more the stigma disappears and more easily people can address their issues.