Universities ‘failing to support’ mental health first aiders

Survey suggests most of those giving help to colleagues feel undervalued

November 23, 2020
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More than half of researchers who have provided help to a colleague suffering from mental health problems do not feel valued or supported by their university for giving such assistance, a survey suggests.

Women and early career researchers in particular did not feel supported for coming to the aid of colleagues who were struggling, the survey results indicate.

About 1,500 researchers, mainly from the life and biomedical sciences, who had supported colleagues were questioned for the survey by open-access biomedical journal eLife, with 54 per cent disagreeing that they “felt supported by my institution for the support I was providing”.

The proportion disagreeing rose to almost two-thirds for women, while about 70 per cent of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers did not believe their university was valuing them for giving such support.

One lecturer commenting for the survey said universities “need to acknowledge this as work, for example in workload models, professional development or promotions discussions”.

“Many mental health supporters around me are fed up and burning out,” the lecturer added.

Those helping colleagues with mental health issues were most likely to say they provided emotional support (90 per cent identified giving this type of support), with practical help such as suggesting resources and assisting with their work also high up the list.

About two-thirds said the individuals they helped were struggling with issues such as depression and anxiety, but some also said they supported researchers with suicidal thoughts, self-harm, substance abuse and eating disorders.

The factors most believed to be playing a part in the mental health problems they were dealing with in colleagues were work progress (66 per cent), conflict with a supervisor (54 per cent) and workload (50 per cent).

Most of those answering the survey said they found the research culture they were in “to be toxic” (29 per cent strongly agreeing and 30 per cent somewhat agreeing).

Meanwhile, more than half of those providing support (60 per cent) said they were struggling with their own mental health, with 84 per cent of PhD students and 70 per cent of postdocs saying they were themselves facing problems.

Three-quarters said supporting others had been emotionally draining or stressful, but more than two-thirds also said that helping colleagues had been personally rewarding (67 per cent).

About half of respondents did not seem to believe that helping others had negatively impacted their own work except for junior research leaders, the majority of whom said it had had such an impact.

“Many respondents noted in their comments that the culture of modern research, such as a relentless need to publish, large numbers of fixed-term contracts, inflexible funding deadlines and heavy workloads, ultimately fosters an unhealthy environment that hinders support as well as creates mental health issues,” an article accompanying the results says.

“The Covid-19 pandemic, which has delayed many research projects, increased demands on teaching staff, led to hiring freezes, and placed additional pressures on those with caring responsibilities, may worsen this situation.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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