Poor supervisor relationships hitting postgraduate mental health

Analysis suggests as many as half of the main influencers of depression and anxiety have their roots in the student-supervisor dynamic

September 5, 2019
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Negative student-supervisor relationships are fuelling a mental health crisis among postgraduates, according to new analysis.

Research published by US researchers last year found that postgraduates were six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety compared with the general population, based on the responses of 2,279 students – 90 per cent of whom were studying for a PhD.

The authors of that study concluded that strong, positive mentoring relationships with supervisors correlated significantly with reduced chance of postgraduates suffering from mental health problems.

But fresh scrutiny of the study data by Nicholas Rowe, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lapland, offers a different perspective. He found that more than half – 51 per cent – of the main influences on poor postgraduate mental health lay within the student-supervisor relationship.

Respondents to the survey who said that they suffered from depression or anxiety were significantly more likely than classmates who did not report problems to say that they did not feel valued by their supervisor. They were also more likely to say that their supervisor did not provide sufficient support or mentorship.

“The effects of this are unknown, but clearly impact on completion rates – as low as 56 per cent – and have effects so severe that people are taking their own lives,” Dr Rowe said.

Dr Rowe cautioned that supervisors were “not necessarily at fault” when things went wrong; rather, it was the result of a “toxic” system, in which academics were often overworked and stressed themselves.

Chris Blackmore, senior university teacher in mental health at the University of Sheffield, said that the supervisory relationship was an “inherently complex dynamic, and PhDs are huge projects, with all sorts of inbuilt tensions”.

However, he pointed out that it was not only students’ well-being at stake, highlighting recent research which suggests that academics’ own mental health and well-being can be “significantly impacted by supervising students with their own mental health problems”. 

Dr Rowe wants to hear from students who have completed their PhD or dropped out in the last five years about their student-supervisor experience.

He hopes that his research project will provide indications as to how “we can change academic and supervisory culture to stop the damage being done” to the mental health of students.

Email nrowe@ulapland.fi to participate.

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