Referring again to Evans et al., 2018 calling for an “enhanced access to mental health support” to PhD students, let me tell you a story about the lack of communication from my university about the mental support services it already has.

While I was dealing with my own PhD studies in biology, I met a PhD student from another faculty. When she explained to me her research project, I could clearly see her enthusiasm for that project. But for many other reasons, she was actually going through a massive depression. Somehow her working environment was making her feel like everything was her fault: if an experiment did not work it was because she made a mistake, or because she was not well organized enough, or because she was simply not good enough… I asked if there was anyone in her institute that she could talk to. She said no, no one that she knew or felt like going to talk to.

It happened that I knew from a colleague that our university has 1) a social care service which is here to help in this kind of situation, and 2) a mental healthcare service with two psychologists whom university staff and students can consult once for free and then at very low costs (about 20$) for up to 10 times.

I told my new friend about that. Exactly like myself when I first learned about it, she had not even been expecting our university to have these services. If this colleague had not told me about it because he benefited from it, we would have never looked it up by ourselves.

I did not have the psychologists contact, but I had the email from one person at the social care, even though I never used it for myself. I had to insist a bit for my friend to accept that she needed support other than just chatting with friends and that her well-being was more important than the guilt of doing this “behind [her] supervisor’s back.”

A few months later, thanks to the person from the social care who revealed being amazingly kind, understanding and supportive, my friend changed lab. After one week she said: “in one week I’ve seen my new supervisor more than in 2 years in my previous lab.” 3 months later she told me, amazed of herself: “it’s been 3 months that I haven’t cried.

As PhD students, we don’t even think that we have access to such support services. How could we when in our own heads we don’t even know what we are: student? employee? Both at the same time? What does that mean??

Maybe it sounds ridiculous but it actually takes a while for us to make sense of this weird status! And because for most of us it is our first true professional experience, we have no idea about how things work, even in a university, and that yes, there are support services for staff and students, we have rights, they can help.

And I won’t even mention how difficult it is to figure this out for a foreign PhD student or that it is the same for many postdocs or any academic level!

What’s the take-home message here?

1) There is a serious need to improve communication:

  • about our rights as PhD students
  • from universities about such type of support services when they have it

2) if such support services do not already exist in your university, then it has to be created. Now. Please.

To finish where I started, actually in Evans et al., 2018 they suggest to “enhanced access to mental health support” with “career and professional development programs.” I totally agree. But I believe such programs should be developed in addition to the kinds of support services mentioned in this article, meaning mental health support services should also be in universities’ priorities.

Update 2019: what is this mental health crisis everyone talks about in academia? => Here my blog post on the question.

In May 2018, for the mental health awareness month, Nature published an interesting collection where I found this article and this one quite striking. They also have a support page with a list of mental healthcare organizations in a few countries. A great website worth checking and sharing is from the Academic Mental Health Collective, they also have a good resource page and nice articles.

Thanks for reading and feel free to leave a comment below :)

Links to these services for students and staff at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) where I did my PhD:


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