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How to Stay Mentally Healthy as a PhD Student

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Acceptance into a PhD programme is a milestone worthy of celebration. This new part of your life comes with the possibility of achievement and more challenges than any other part of your academic career.  In fact, more than 40% of graduate students showed signs of moderate to severe depression. If you don’t understand the issues you’ll face and take steps to protect yourself in your PhD programme then your mental health could suffer as a result. 

A PhD student may be tasked with teaching undergraduates, assisting in the lab, taking other classes, and doing research for their dissertation. ‘A study that looked at more than 3,600 PhD students in Belgium found that one in two PhD students experience some form of psychological distress’, says the educative platform Pro-Papers. It also revealed that the prevalence of mental health problems in PhD students is higher than that of other highly educated members of the population. 

Firstly, it’s important to identify the signals associated with mental health issues that commonly affect PhD students. This allows you to take proactive measures before the situation gets out of hand. Secondly, there are lifestyle modifications which will drastically curtail the onset of mental illness. 

Signs of mental help problems

The following signs are a natural part of life in general. The reason they’re symptoms is because they occur over an extended period instead of once in a while or in response to specific situations. 

1. Feeling anxious or sad all the time

Anxiety is a normal part of moving to a new place, interacting with new people, and adjusting to difficult work. How long should it take for an independent adult to adjust? In reality, not too long. 

If you feel yourself felling anxious or worried about even the most mundane things like going to the café or getting out of bed then it may be a sign of a larger problem. It can also manifest as a pervasive feeling of sadness about your life in general, your prospects, or interactions with others. 

2. Memory and sleep problems

This is a big red flag. Most people are happy to lay down after a long day of work and get right to sleep. This isn’t the case when mental health issues, especially depression, arise. 

Symptoms include being tired and having trouble staying awake during the day but being unable to sleep when they go to bed.  This leads to chronic sleep deprivation which has its own problems such as difficulty concentrating, irritability, weight loss, and memory impairment.   

How to stay mentally healthy

Knowing the symptoms of mental illness will help you understand when it’s time to get expert help. No one wants to go down that route so it’s also important to know how to stay healthy before a medical intervention is necessary. Here are a few ways to do that. 

1. Get enough sleep

According to the US Center for Disease Control, 30% of American adults are sleeping for six hours or less every day. Over time, it may lead to chronic sleep deprivation which has a lot of negative side effects. 

The simple solution is to get more sleep. This is easier said than done. As a PhD student, there are many demands on your time. One of the best ways to make sure you get enough sleep is to set a hard deadline for going to bed and outlaw your phone and other devices. Over time, your body will adjust to your schedule and you’ll find it easier to go to sleep at the same time every day. 

2. Pursue a life outside of PhD work

Losing interest in activities outside of PhD work can be one of the symptoms that can alert people to mental health problems. For that to be possible, you need an activity in the first place.  PhD work is challenging and time consuming but you have to make a choice. Will you allow it to take over or will you carve out time for doing things you love? 

Hobbies and other activities help you take a break, recharge, or gain a new perspective which all contribute to better mental health. 


The challenges faced by PhD students are real and lead to a higher prevalence of mental illness than any other segment of the population. Though more common, it’s not unavoidable.  PhD students or anyone else suffering from mental illness can identify the problems and get treatment before it ruins their lives. At the same time, one should keep in mind all the ways to stay mentally healthy through some of the most gruelling years. 

In the end, prevention is a key point so make the necessary lifestyle changes now to reduce the risk of mental illness later.

Jason Smith did his degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh.  He has an ongoing interest in mental health and well-being. 

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