Graduate students experience significant stress and are more prone to depression and anxiety than other groups of students. They report greater levels of eating disorders, substance abuse and feelings of hopelessness.
A recent report from the University of California, found 47% of doctoral students and 37% of master’s degree students, who were surveyed, to be depressed. Furthermore, 64% of graduate students in arts and humanities showed higher levels of depression and suicidal thoughts. Based on the university’s enrollment data from 2013, we can estimate 2,800 of the 6,000 PhD students to be clinically depressed.
This is a high number and not limited to the Berkeley campus. Other studies, too, have shown high rates of student depression. As a researcher working on suicide prevention programs, I have found this to be true for our own campus.
On a single day last fall, we randomly stopped students on our campus and administered a depression questionnaire. Of the approximately 250 students we contacted on this one particular day, no fewer than eight were having active suicidal thoughts.
While the students with suicidal thoughts received emergency counseling, another 12 scheduled appointments voluntarily after seeing their scores. Ten more students presented themselves over the next few days, saying that the questionnaire helped them realize they needed counseling.
This meant that 30 students, or 12% of the students we stopped, were experiencing depression serious enough to need intervention.
We do not have adequate data that separates the suicide rate of graduate students from that of under-graduates. But studies among graduate students show that a substantial percentage suffer from depression, anxiety and have suicidal thoughts.
According to one such study where an email questionnaire was sent out to 301 graduate students nationally, 22% were found to be on medication for depression or anxiety and nearly 19% were in counseling.
At the University of Michigan, researchers found nearly 2% of graduate students were having suicidal thoughts in the four weeks preceding a survey they conducted in 2007.
The most common risk factors, as reported by researchers at the University of Michigan, for depression in graduate students include financial concerns, post-graduate job prospect anxiety, isolation and lack of social support.
We don’t know what makes the arts and humanities graduate students more vulnerable to depression and suicide. Since there are no other studies that point to these fields of study as having greater risk, it may be that this is simply coincidental or specific to the Berkeley campus, or their fears about post-graduate employment are realistic.
This is not to say that undergraduate students are not at risk. Data from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, a federally-supported program, shows about 8% of college students (undergraduate and graduate) as having suicidal thoughts, about 2% making a suicide plan and about 1% making an attempt.
As not all universities respond to surveys about student suicide and in many cases suicidal thoughts or attempts go unreported, actual numbers are likely to be higher.
A university can be a stressful place. Students might feel overwhelmed, hopeless, isolated and not able to cope at college. Under such circumstances, they may perceive suicide to be the only way out.
It is important to break the silence and to bring to public attention the problem of student depression, anxiety and suicide. The larger issue of lack of resources on some campuses needs to be addressed urgently.