Prevalence of psychological distress among doctoral candidates in Pakistan

Year: 2021

Author: Khurshid, Shumaila

Type of paper: Symposium

A now prominent concern in higher education is the precarious mental health and well-being of university students (Hazell et al. 2020). The literature points to the high prevalence of depression, anxiety and stress within student populations including at the doctoral level, signalling a growing public health concern that has lately been exacerbated by global pandemic conditions (Kulikowski et al. 2019; Levecque et al. 2017; Li et al. 2021; Volken et al. 2021). Until recently, very few studies of student mental health focussed on doctoral students in developing countries, especially in Pakistan. Yet this group in Pakistan is facing unique challenges and expectations that warrant closer examination to comprehensively identify risk factors. So the focus of this paper is the psychological distress of doctoral candidates in universities within the region of Punjab and Islamabad the Capital Territory, Pakistan. It investigates the relationship between the prevalence of symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress collected using DASS-21, and access to and perceived influence of various forms of support and the incidence of stressful life events by using a self-developed Support Matrix and Candidate Major Stressful Life Events Checklist. Data was collected from different universities in Pakistan by administering the paper-copy survey, in which 248 doctoral candidates participated. The findings indicated that the proportions of students rating distress as severe through extremely severe for depression, anxiety and stress were 20.8%, 47.5 % and 11.8 % respectively, which is quite concerning. However, in Pakistan where mental health is still largely a taboo subject (Irfan, 2016), it can be interpreted positively that about one-quarter of participants were utilising health and counselling services and this group were scoring higher on DASS-21 indicating those most in psychological distress were also accessing healthcare. The most prominent supports for students were family, friends, and supervisors respectively. Those participants who reported support from close family or friends reported lower DASS-21 scores for depression and stress. The family was relied upon for emotional, financial, and motivational support; friends and supervisors more for the latter, and supervisors for academic support. Prevalence of symptoms of psychological distress was significantly lower where support was seen to be meeting needs, and significantly higher in relation to multiple stressful life events. It is suggested that future work with this group should focus on the development and evaluation of mental health interventions and the strategies to promote awareness of utilising health and counselling services in Pakistan.