Why Indian Academia Shouldn’t Ignore Mental Health of PhD Scholars

Open minded-counselling centres & easily approachable social support systems can help distressed research scholars.

5 min read

A common, yet the most hushed-up aspect in the life of a PhD student in India, is the amount of intense stress, burn out, depression, insomnia and suicidal tendencies that a scholar undergoes. However, this is very much an open secret among both junior and senior academics in Indian research circles.

This subject is usually brushed under the carpet for fear of backlash from academic guides, research supervisors and higher management in the academic fraternity. However, as the number of Indian research institutions grow at a rapid pace, this growing problem needs to be addressed at some point, even if it’s a little late.

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The Fault in Our Academia

Most of the research institutions and universities in the west have counselling centres, social support and redressal systems in this regard. However, in India, this isn’t the case. Although India is a scientific superpower, most of our universities and research institutions have dysfunctional social support systems in place.

Many Indian research institutions and universities do not even have any counselling centres where research scholars can go and open up about their mental health. This is specially worrying because mental health problems among both junior and senior scientists are pretty common in our country.

In the few top-notch institutes where counsellors and student-welfare officers exist, students often find it difficult to open up. Broadly speaking, there are two reasons for this.

  • Firstly, there is a lot of unnecessary stigma and taboo involved in confessing mental health problems.
  • Secondly, those officials or staff aren’t independent, fair or unbiased enough to handle such issues. Young researchers hesitate that the details of the discussion will soon leak into senior faculty and management circles; which is often the case.

Such a dysfunctional student welfare and social support system results in students hiding and ignoring stress, intense mood swings and sleep-related problems.

Unlike regular college students, most PhD scholars typically spend about five years in research institutions. The absence of a friendly support system often means that scholars hit rock bottom, bottling up months of mental stress to a point of saturation.

Stress & its Aftermath

The typical aftermaths are serious burn out or/and depressive phases. In not so rare occasions, research students suddenly leave the PhD programme, because they are simply unable cope with the stress any longer.

In rare cases, scholars are forced to take their life as they feel that they are not good enough or that they haven’t performed well. The academic system can be cruel in such cases, as it turns a blind eye to the plight of distressed scholars.

Repeated incidents over the last few decades clearly show that this isn’t a shallow or a mild problem. These problems plague generations of research students and often have an harrowing after-effect on their future mental state as well.

In this context, some issues are simple and easy to solve. For example, financial difficulties faced by Junior Research Fellows (JRFs) and Senior Research Fellows (SRFs) attracted a lot of press attention lately due to nationwide protests.

Such things can be fixed if funding bodies agree to raise the salary structure, which needs multiple raises and hikes in the coming years. When one looks at the cost of living in our metros, Indian PhD students are one of the most underpaid researchers in the world.

Little Room for Redressal

However, there are some other issues, which are more complex and layered. An important aspect in this regard is the relationship between a PhD student and her thesis supervisor. In the event of a disagreement between the two, it is not at all easy to change the supervisor in the Indian academic system. It has to go through numerous layers of red tape which will drain the candidates’ energy and time.

Hence, most scholars go about their PhD life dealing with the same academic supervisor, no matter how distressing or complicated the initial situation is. Within a couple of years, when there is already a pre-existing dissonance, things turn pretty sour when it comes to publishing papers in journals, which is an integral part of passing a PhD course.

There is a lot of heartburn when a research student and her supervisor compete to take credit for glory of results and first authorship of papers. When such problems occur, the research student feels only powerless in the Indian system.

Redressal systems at our research institutions and universities are not transparent or fair when it comes to treating such cases. Almost always they tend to favour the senior scientist or senior professor.

When years of work of JRFs or SRFs get wasted after such shadow battles within the system, it is not surprising that some of them develop serious mental distress like panic attacks, burnout, insomnia, maniacal phases, depressive phases, suicidal thoughts and so on.

The only way to tackle this serious issue is by introducing independent, fair and open minded counselling centres and easily approachable social support systems within the university or institution framework.

The Human Touch

In the west, usually counsellors are totally disconnected from mainstream faculty and they do not share secrets or talk to each other at all about counselling sessions. In India, there are plenty of research institutions where the scientists’ spouses work as part-time counsellors, nurses, doctors etc in the same institution. It would not really matter if such spouses or relatives remained thoroughly professional, but in our country, such things are far from reality.

The constant pressure of securing favorable recommendation letters means most junior researchers are afraid to make any formal complaint against senior scientists who are known for bullying and belittling JRFs and SRFs.

The least an academic supervisor or senior professor can do is be more humane and sensitive to research students’ problems. Because of multiple pressures and anxieties, many research students need some extra care and sensitivity from senior staff side.

Research students are already stressed by the uncertainty of research results, meagre stipend, publication deadlines, uncertain future jobs and running out of stipend time frame. In such a situation, even small hindrances and complications can upset the overall equilibrium of their life. And if these things push them over the limits of sanity once in a while, they do not have access to independent and fair counselling centres either.

For female researchers, post-marriage and pregnancy issues are in itself difficult to navigate in our strict and rigid PhD programme rules. These pent-up emotions usually burst at some stage and the result is a disaster – a phenomenon is that is getting all too common.

It is high time we, as a society, do something about this. Otherwise our society will keep losing a lot of our young bright minds to the dark demons inside the academic/research blackholes.

(Dr Aswin Sekhar is an Indian astrophysicist and science writer. He tweets @aswinsek. This is an Opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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