Mental health issues: a common lab hazard?

Published: 05 Jun 2018

While many researchers are fighting the good fight in the lab, it seems we are losing a war with our own health.

A recent publication from Nature determined that graduate students are six times more likely to experience periods of depression and anxiety compared to the general population. So what is it about being in research that predisposes us to such health hazards?

We are on the cusp of a mental health crisis in research, with a 210% rise in those suffering mental health problems leaving university and a 79% increase in student suicide from 2007 to 2015. This cannot be allowed to continue.

The Nature article cites lack of work-life balance and mentorship, as well as over half of respondents saying they did not feel valued by their mentor. At a time when PhD studentships far exceed the availability post-doctoral positions, a plateau in government funding and the pressure to ‘publish-or-perish’ being at an all-time high, is it finally time we talk about how these factors affect our mental health?

Mental health was a recurring theme in conversations with students from all sorts of backgrounds at Pharmacology 2017 last December. Students are stressed and tired. Of course, getting a PhD degree is hard – it’s meant to be; if it wasn’t everyone would have one. But more and more students are now seeking help for depression. So is depression par for the course?

Aidan’s story

I (Aidan) fell one Sunday afternoon in the lab, and spent that evening getting stitches in my hand as a result. The resulting incident reports and health and safety interviews showed my lab didn’t want such an incident to occur again.

But how is it that such a contrast exists between the response to my fairly minor physical injury in the lab compared to the relative lack of recognition of the effects of lab life on mental health?

There is a post-it note on my desk from my first year of my PhD which says ‘I write to you from your lowest point. Right now you feel like a failure and that you are incapable. You will look back and be happy that when you wanted to give up, you didn’t.’ Such thoughts are common during a PhD, but are medication, counselling, and sacrificing your own mental health worth the trade-off?

Niamh’s story

I (Niamh) always knew that doing a PhD in any subject brings with it intense pressure, but I was not prepared for the deterioration of mental health in so many students around me. Since beginning my PhD I have become increasingly aware of the names of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication; unfortunately this has not been due to my studies or research, but because of the conversations I have had with my fellow students.

And while most of the current data is focused on postgraduate research, poor mental health has been shown to be a problem that continues throughout an academic career.

Let’s talk

The opportunity to do a PhD attracts accomplished, intelligent and driven young adults who should not become ill this early in their career. In our opinion, the hesitancy to speak out that so many young people feel is understandable: as a highly-qualified student or graduate, you want people to see you as being “in control” and able to withstand the pressures of an academic career. But we all know it’s just not that simple.

These new statistics in Nature have been a major wake-up call, and the British Pharmacological Society wants to do its bit to start the fightback. The Young Pharmacologists Advisory Group has been discussing how we can combat this ever growing problem. But we want to hear many more members’ voices in this conversation, whether you are in the early stages of your career or you are a more experienced academic, perhaps acting as a mentor to younger colleagues.

This blog is intended to be the first in a short series exploring aspects of mental health in academia. We hope this or future blogs prompt you to think about your own mental health and that of the people around you, and to seek help if you need it from family, friends, supervisors or counselling services.

Only by starting a conversation can we help to fight back against depression in the lab.

To get involved with the British Pharmacological Society’s Early Career Pharmacologists Advisory Group’s work on mental health, please contact


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About the author

Aidan Seeley

Aidan graduated in 2015 with a BSc (hons) Biomedical Science (Pharmacology) from the University of Aberdeen, where he was awarded the British Pharmacological Society’s Student Contribution to Pharmacology Prize. Aidan is currently the Appointed Trustee (Young Pharmacologist) on the Society’s Council. He is completing his PhD at Queen’s University Belfast with Professor Daniel Longley and Dr Emma Evegren, which focuses on receptor-mediated endocytosis in cancer cells. Later this year, Aidan will begin his post as a Lecturer in Medical Pharmacology at Swansea University Medical School.

Niamh McKerr

Niamh graduated in 2013 with a BSc (hons) Biomedical Sciences from Queen’s University Belfast. After her undergraduate degree, she worked for three years in the animal pharmaceutical industry at Norbrook Laboratories in Newry. Niamh is now in her final year of a PhD at Queen’s with Professor Karen McCloskey and Professor Ian Mills, which focuses on ion channels in prostate cancer. She became a Society member in 2017 and presented a poster abstract at Pharmacology 2017.

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