February 21, 2023

Graduate school and mental health

Valentin Bolotnyy discusses the state of student mental health in eight top-ranked economics programs.

Source: DimaBerlin

Graduate school should be about learning how to push the frontiers of knowledge. Many students, however, also learn that getting a PhD can push them into emotional and psychological trouble.

In a paper in the Journal of Economic Literature, authors Valentin Bolotnyy, Matthew Basilico, and Paul Barreira surveyed eight top-ranked economics PhD programs across the country and found high levels of significant depression and anxiety symptoms among students.

Their survey indicates that some norms in the field, such as working alone and downplaying emotional distress, may be exacerbating the profession’s mental health issues.

Bolotnyy recently spoke with Tyler Smith about the prevalence of mental distress among economics PhD students and what universities can do to remedy the situation, such as encouraging a more collaborative research environment.

The edited highlights of that conversation are below, and the full interview can be heard using the podcast player.



Tyler Smith: What prompted you to investigate the state of mental health among economics PhD students?

Valentin Bolotnyy: The work started when I myself was a graduate student in Harvard's economics department in the fall of 2015, when I was just starting my third year. There was a suicide in the MIT Economics Department, and that prompted a lot of reflection among the students and faculty, both at MIT and at Harvard and a number of other institutions in the area. For us at Harvard, it really shed a light on the fact that things were not right, that students were struggling, but we didn't really have a good sense of the magnitude of the problem and of whether the PhD environment had anything to do with it. 

My coauthors and I—Matthew Basilico, who was a PhD student with me at the time, and Paul Barreira, who was the head of Harvard Campus Mental Health Services—set out to collect data. We initially started doing this through a pilot survey in the Harvard Economics Department, which made it clear that the problem was quite prevalent and quite severe. We employed the PHQ-9 and the GAD-7, which are clinical instruments that are used when an individual goes to therapy. We saw with those instruments that the problem was quite serious. That then spurred conversations with others outside of Harvard. 

Smith: Can you just give the broad brush strokes of what you found from your survey?

Bolotnyy: We found that these moderate to severe symptoms of depression and anxiety were about two to three times more prevalent among PhD students in these eight top-ranked economics PhD programs than in the general population. Suicidality was also about two times what you'd see in the general population. 

Smith: Were there any groups that stood out—like men or women or maybe first year students?

Bolotnyy: Yes, women, as in the general population, had slightly higher levels of these moderate to severe symptoms of depression and anxiety. Later-year students—students in years five and six plus, especially—were seeing some of the most high prevalence of these really moderate to severe symptoms. The starkest difference that we found was between first-year students and later-year students. We interpreted that—along with other evidence that we collected in the survey—as evidence that there's a lot connected to the job market. 

Smith: How did these rates compare to other disciplines?

Bolotnyy: In general, the economics students are doing a bit better. The prevalence of these moderate to severe symptoms is a bit lower among economics students than if we just take, for example, the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences more broadly. But there are a couple of other issues that have stood out to us. Economic students are about half as likely as other Harvard PhD students to be in treatment if they have some of these serious symptoms. That's something that we've talked a lot about and tried to understand. 

Our leading hypothesis here is that there is a heightened norm of acceptance of pain among economics students and in the economics profession. That may lead to students not seeking the help that they need—normalizing those serious symptoms that they're experiencing. In other disciplines, when students are experiencing these symptoms, the norm is more to appreciate that they're not normal and that they are in fact things that need treatment. That's something that I think we as a profession and departments should work on.

Smith: Were you able to isolate any important factors, like pressures to succeed or something else, that might be driving these elevated rates of mental distress?

Bolotnyy: A lack of social connections appears to be a major factor. I think, from what we gathered in the surveys and from myself being in the PhD program and talking to others, there has been historically this emphasis on working alone, which is in contrast to other scientific academic fields. That, I think, is one contributing factor to this sense of loneliness and isolation, which can lead to people falling through the cracks and just floating along in the course of the program. 

Advising also is a big part of this. If your advisor is very hands on and is actively working with you to work through failures and help you get back up and move forward with research, if they're helping you think about academic and nonacademic job options, and if they're helping you think about who you want to be and where you want to go after the PhD, then I think you're going to be better off, and you're going to be better able to handle some of the stressors and anxieties that come with the PhD program and the job market. So, our sense is that the issues are about identity and meaning.

There's got to be a way to give constructive feedback to help people feel like a failure can still be a success and that it's a learning process and that the faculty and the students are all in this together.

Valentin Bolotnyy

Smith: For students out there who are struggling, what advice do you have for them or what resources would you point them to?

Bolotnyy: One big advantage that we think US programs have are campus mental-health services (in many of these institutions, right on site). And I would strongly encourage students to go in even for just a casual preliminary conversation. Just familiarize yourself with what's available. And if it's not for you, it's not for you. But take that step to talk to someone if you're experiencing some of these symptoms that we measure. More broadly, I think what we found is that forming great social connections and having sources of social support is probably the most significant thing you can do in the long run to safeguard yourself from some of these issues becoming more severe, whether it's friends and family and staying closely connected to them or peers in your department or making sure that you have great faculty and advising champions. All of that can really help you bounce back from failure. And when some of these issues come up, they won’t drag you down into serious problems.

Smith: What can faculty and administrators do to make the biggest improvements?

Bolotnyy: From the perspective of universities, experiment with decreasing stigma, experiment with ways to deliver these services more effectively. Cornell has experimented with a program called Let's Talk that has been quite successful and has allowed students to drop in and chat with counselors and get familiarized with what's on offer. Harvard is experimenting with cognitive behavioral therapy workshops for students and growth mindset workshops. From a faculty perspective, I think there's a lot that faculty can do to be more caring about their students, to be more engaged, to develop a rhythm for checking in, to help students fundamentally bounce back from failure in a constructive way. There's got to be a way to give constructive feedback to help people and students feel like a failure can still be a success and that it's a learning process and that the faculty and the students are all in this together. I think that the more that departments move in that direction, and the more that faculty and students are working together, the better off everyone will be—students and faculty.

Graduate Student Mental Health: Lessons from American Economics Departments” appears in the December 2022 issue of the Journal of Economic Literature. Music in the audio is by Podington Bear.