Doing a doctorate can be a challenging experience, but there are a number of actions that students, supervisors and universities can take to promote good mental health and wellbeing for the postgraduate researcher community.

Since 2018, we've been working to improve postgraduate research (PGR) student wellbeing by increasing their mental health literacy and social support.

Crisis, what crisis?

There has been increasing attention paid to a growing mental health crisis in undergraduate students. But a research study published in Belgium in 2017 by Levecque et al found that more than half of 3,659 PhD students surveyed experienced symptoms of psychological distress, and 32 per cent were found to be at risk of developing a common psychiatric disorder such as depression.

This was significantly higher than in comparator groups, including the highly educated general population, highly educated employees and higher education students. The researchers identified work-life balance, high workloads and a poor relationship with supervisors as factors associated with mental health issues.

Other research has identified problems related to supervision and the academic community, resources, the designing and conducting of research and to general work processes, including time management and motivation. Many of these issues appear to be embedded in wider research culture.

A report commissioned by Wellcome indicated that poor research culture is leading to stress, anxiety and mental health problems. In their online survey of over 4000 researchers, just over half had sought, or have wanted to seek, professional help for depression or anxiety.

The Wellbeing Project

In 2018, the Office for Students and Research England invested £1.5 million in 17 projects intended to develop and disseminate good practice in PGR mental health and wellbeing across the sector. This included £150,000 awarded to the University of Portsmouth, in partnership with Leeds Beckett University and Vitae.

The aim of this project was to improve PGR student wellbeing by increasing mental health literacy and social support. Previous research on mental health literacy indicates that increased knowledge about mental disorders and positive attitudes towards care can assist in prevention, recognition and management of mental illness.

In the Higher Education context, improved mental health literacy may enhance the willingness of students to seek help and ensure that staff respond appropriately to students with mental health problems. There is also compelling evidence that social support can reduce the risk of mental health disorders and enhance recovery if they do develop, and so the project sought to enhance social support through group mentoring and networking.

Project interventions

Survey

A baseline survey at the beginning of the project indicated that 70% of PGR students had experienced symptoms of mild to severe non-specific psychological distress. It also indicated wellbeing was the best predictor of distress and help-seeking behaviour.

Action Learning Sets

Peer learning groups identified a number of key topics in the Researcher Development Framework which impacted on mental health and wellbeing:

  • motivation
  • self-management
  • work life balance
  • confidence
  • publication
  • time-management

Online resources were developed to support peer to peer discussions about mental health and wellbeing with other students. The majority of PGRs who took part in these action learning sets felt that the intervention had had a positive impact on them personally, through improvement in social connections and support (including seeking of), and confidence.

Enhanced Supervisor Training

Workshops were offered as part of the Graduate School supervisor training programme which covered a wide range of topics including the role of the supervisor, pedagogies, and identification of mental health problems, guidance, and referral, amongst others. The project team worked with PGRs to develop a video and case studies for embedding in all supervisor training sessions.

Graduate School Development Programme

Members of the project team attended all University and faculty induction sessions to deliver key messages about mental health and wellbeing and to alert students to the other project activities. Three additional sessions were added to the Graduate School Programme (Thriving and Surviving in Academia, Imposter Syndrome and Work Life Balance).

Mental Health and Wellbeing Lens

A key outcome of the project has been the development of a mental health and wellbeing lens for the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF). This is one of several different lenses (others include employability, information literacy, leadership, public engagement and teaching) that focus on specific knowledge, behaviours and attributes that are developed through the broader contexts of being a researcher.

This lens outlines those descriptors which are most central to creating a healthy environment and culture in order to protect both the mental health of others and the individual. Postgraduate and early career researchers can use the lens to:

  • identify how wellbeing and mental health literacy can support their career and professional development as a researcher
  • identify how the skills and attributes they have developed through research can contribute to or underpin your development in relation to wellbeing and mental health
  • select areas that they want to develop to build good wellbeing and mental health, which can be used to inform your development reviews
  • provide a language to evidence the transferability of their skills and attributes in relation to wellbeing and mental health, which can be used for example, in applications or job interviews.

Project outcomes

There appear to be links between institutional research culture and mental health and wellbeing. Our project suggests that a strong research culture can enhance mental health and wellbeing through providing opportunities for developing and sustaining good social support networks, building cohorts and creating a sense of belonging.

Resources for PGRs

The University's Graduate School Hub Site has a section on Health and Wellbeing which links to all support for University of Portsmouth postgraduate research students. The Wellbeing Thesis is a comprehensive resource, also funded by the Office for Students/Research England which includes top tips, videos and downloadable action plans for all stages of the postgraduate research journey.

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