Call for tailored mental health support for postgraduate researchers

One in four female and one in five male postgraduate researchers found to be seeking counselling during their studies, according to new report from Research England

May 18, 2018
Person's head, cogged wheels, brain, mental health

Higher education policy leaders in England are calling for tailored mental health support to be made available to postgraduate researchers, as new data reveals that as many as one in five are seeking help through counselling services.

A culture of overwork, high expectations for achievement and difficulties found between students and their supervisors have been blamed for poor mental well-being in university postgraduate researchers.

While mental health problems in both undergraduate students and academic staff members have been placed in the spotlight in recent years, fresh analysis commissioned by the former Higher Education Funding Council for England – now Research England – suggests the needs of PGRs may have been previously overlooked.

Publishing a survey sample of PGRs working across six higher education institutions across England, analysts found that the cohort faced different sorts of challenges to their seniors or undergraduate peers, particularly with regards to financial worries and feelings of inadequacy and isolation.

Of 1,857 complete responses, one in four female PGRs (26 per cent) admitted to making use of counselling services at least once a year through their university, compared with about one in five men (18 per cent). In spite of this, 45 per cent of respondents admitted that they were reluctant to discuss their problems with their supervisor, and only 27 per cent felt comfortable talking to their postgraduate tutor.

Those who aspired to an academic career had considered leaving or suspending their studies at least several times a month (18 per cent), but this was found to be less frequent than with other career intentions (28 per cent).

The report, led by the Vitae professional development support network, recommends a series of interventions for Research England and higher education institutions to consider if they are to ensure a healthy and supportive research environment for candidates.

These include improved training and recognition of supervisors’ roles in identifying potential mental health issues in PGRs.

For institutions “to provide a safe working environment for PGRs that supports their well-being and mental health, systemic culture change is needed by the sector”, the report concludes. “The academic culture of high achievement, expectations of high workloads and not displaying any weaknesses can mitigate against PGRs feeling this is a safe environment where they can talk about their well-being.”

To this end, UK Research and Innovation should work with Universities UK and other industry stakeholders to expand and contextualise pre-existing mental health guidelines – for instance, that of the UUK Mental Health Framework – as well as develop “institutional strategies” to better support the PGR environment.

David Sweeney, executive chair of Research England, welcomed the report as a means to help policymakers “better understand the important issue” of mental health. “It is encouraging that the sector is already taking forward many of the recommendations from the report, and Research England will continue to play a key role, working with the Office for Students, in supporting this,” he said.

The results of a separate, larger survey published in Nature Biotechnology in March found that 41 per cent of postgraduates reported having severe or moderate anxiety. Of the 2,279 respondents, postgraduates with high levels of anxiety or depression were much more likely to admit to having poor work-life balance, or to cite lack of support from supervisors as a factor.

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