Why Depression is More Common in Intellectuals and Women

Recently, the demise of Hong Kong female vocalist Coco Lee has captured the public’s attention once again, redirecting focus towards the affliction of depression. Depression has long stood as a formidable adversary of humanity. In the contemporary society, depression’s deleterious impact on health and life has become more profound and consequential. However, two pivotal aspects and the underlying rationales behind depression among modern individuals have been overlooked.

Occupationally, the intellectual cohort exhibits the highest incidence rate of depression, approximately sixfold that of the general populace. In terms of gender, the prevalence rate among women is roughly twice that of men.

Evans of the Health Science Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio commenced a comprehensive examination of depression within academic circles in 2015. The study garnered 2,279 responses from 234 institutions across 26 countries, predominantly from doctoral candidates. Following meticulous collation and analysis, the findings were disseminated in March 2018. The outcomes unveiled depression as both a global predicament and one of heightened severity. Forty-one percent of respondents self-reported experiencing moderate to severe anxiety, while 39% reported moderate to severe depression. This rate stands at sixfold the prevalence observed in the general population. These results align closely with the conclusions drawn from the “Lancet-Psychiatry” study of 2019, which indicated a lifetime prevalence of depressive disorders among Chinese adults at 6.8%.

In 2019, the esteemed British publication “Nature” and the London-based market research firm Shift Learning conducted an unprecedented survey encompassing doctoral students worldwide. The survey was administered in five languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, French, and Portuguese, attracting 6,320 respondents. This endeavor, both linguistically and in terms of scale, represents an unprecedented milestone in history. Of the survey participants, 36% hailed from Europe, 28% from Asia, 27% from North or Central America, and 9% from Africa, South America, and Oceania. China contributed 700 survey responses.

Overall, over one-third of respondents (36%) acknowledged seeking assistance for anxiety and depression associated with their Ph.D. pursuits. Furthermore, depression continues to escalate within the intellectual community. A mere 12% of respondents in the prior Nature survey of 2017 disclosed seeking help for similar reasons. However, only those who identified “mental health” as one of the primary factors at that time were eligible to address this issue.

A separate survey conducted in the United States in 2020 arrived at a parallel conclusion. The study examined 5,247 graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics across nine U.S. institutions. Astonishingly, 38% self-reported anxiety, while 35% acknowledged depression. Compared to the 2019 survey, the prevalence of depression exhibited a substantial surge, with the number of students grappling with depression doubling and a 50% surge in the prevalence of anxiety disorders.

Additionally, Evans’ research findings highlighted gender disparities in depression. Female, transgender, and gender-aware respondents demonstrated a higher likelihood of encountering mental health issues compared to their male counterparts. Anxiety and depression rates reached 55% and 57%, respectively, among transgender and gender-aware graduate students, while women reported rates of 43% and 41%, and men reported rates of 34% and 35%.

One crucial societal factor contributing to the elevated incidence of depression among women lies in their heightened exposure to sexual harassment. Other studies provide corroborative evidence.

In 2020, the Wellcome Trust, a prominent biomedical research funding organization in London, conducted a survey encompassing over 4,200 scientists across 87 countries, spanning genders, career stages, and disciplines. The findings revealed that 43% had experienced bullying or harassment, while 61% had witnessed incidents of sexual harassment.

A 2021 Nature survey involving more than 3,200 working scientists evidenced that nearly one-third reported instances of discrimination or harassment by colleagues in their current positions. In a separate 2022 survey conducted by the journal Nature, which encompassed over 3,200 doctoral and master’s students, 35% of researchers identifying with racial or ethnic minority groups disclosed experiencing harassment or discrimination during their academic pursuits.

The primary reason why individuals within the academic realm grapple with depression at a higher ratio compared to the general populace is the heightened pressure and pronounced introversion they endure. Unfortunately, the prevailing management model fixates on the quantity of scientific research (papers) rather than its quality. Researchers must generate a multitude of research outcomes to secure permanent positions and salary advancements. Thus, they are confronted with an ultimatum of “publish or perish,” facing elimination if unable to publish. Consequently, the pressure they face is twofold.

In 2020, a science communication and technology enterprise based in Mumbai, India, surveyed 13,000 researchers across more than 160 countries and regions. The results revealed that 65% of respondents experienced intense pressure to preserve their standing within the research community. This pressure manifests in the form of publishing papersat a rapid pace, securing grants and funding, and achieving significant scientific breakthroughs. The constant competition and the fear of falling behind or being overshadowed by colleagues contribute to immense psychological strain.

Moreover, the academic environment often lacks proper support systems for mental health. Graduate students and early-career researchers, in particular, face significant challenges, such as long working hours, isolation, and the high expectations placed upon them. The culture of academia can foster a sense of imposter syndrome, where individuals doubt their abilities and fear being exposed as frauds. This further exacerbates feelings of anxiety and depression.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated mental health challenges within academia. The disruption to research activities, isolation due to remote work, and the uncertainty surrounding funding and job prospects have all contributed to increased stress and anxiety among researchers.

To address the issue of depression within the academic community, it is crucial to prioritize mental health support and destigmatize seeking help. Academic institutions should establish counseling services specifically tailored to the needs of graduate students and researchers. Additionally, creating a supportive and inclusive work environment, promoting work-life balance, and fostering open discussions about mental health can significantly contribute to reducing the prevalence of depression.

Furthermore, academic institutions and funding agencies should prioritize the well-being of researchers over excessive productivity demands. Recognizing the importance of quality research and allowing for a more balanced approach to academic success can help alleviate the pressure that contributes to depression.

Overall, depression among modern individuals, particularly within the academic community, is a complex issue influenced by various factors such as occupational pressures, gender disparities, heightened exposure to harassment, and the lack of mental health support. Addressing these factors requires a multi-faceted approach involving institutions, policymakers, and individuals themselves to prioritize mental health and create a supportive environment that fosters well-being.

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