Supporting the mental health of postgraduate researchers

We all have issues with our mental health from time to time. Postgraduate researchers are often under a lot of pressure. Supporting the mental health of researchers is a vital issue but new approaches to this are changing the way universities support students.

Showcasing Mental Health Research

Between 1 in 4 of us experience a mental health problem each year. That being said research into mental health is significantly underfunded. In either case the purpose of Mental Health Research is to champion and fund world-class research to transform the lives of everyone affected by a mental health condition.

Wednesday 5 of July 2023 was the first ever annual Research Appreciation Day. The organisation is dedicated to researching better mental health for everyone.

The conversation around mental health

There is an important conversation going on in the academic community regarding the mental health of individuals that are conducting postgraduate research. This issue has been present for a number of years, and it has become more open in the discussion agenda since the 2019 global pandemic.

Recent opinion is fueling a change in approach. This is leaning towards the shared ownership of mental health issues rather than it being down to the individual to manage their condition.

The scale of the problem of mental health in postgraduate students

Poor mental health has serious consequences for all of us. Mental health and physical health are one and the same because the brain controls every aspect of our physical and psychological self. Anything causing trauma whether physical, emotional or psychological should be treated the same.

Just because the outward signs of poor mental health are not as obvious as physical effects, this does not mean it’s not as important. Breaking a limb in an accident would not go untreated, and the same is true of emotional conditions.

Supporting the mental health of postgraduate researchers

Universities acknowledge that supporting PGRs is a corporate responsibility. This includes Postgraduate researchers undertaking studentships or working as research assistants as members of the university staff.

Researchers can expect wellbeing support from university services, including training schedules and  mentoring as well as all the usual social interactions that are part and parcel of university life on a campus.

On the other hand, self-funded researchers perform most of their research activity alone. They don’t receive the same level of support because their interaction with their supervisor is based on timetabled availability. This exposes them to situations where they may not be able to seek help as swiftly as their peers.

Looking after yourself – who is responsible?

Supporting the mental health of researchers is focused on offering support for the individual. The onus has been on providing tools and resources that guide the researcher by sharing techniques and good practical examples.

All research-intensive UK Universities have support protocols in place to support PGR’s. There are a number of excellent examples of this from the research bodies and leading establishments that goes beyond the sample below: -

  • Charlie Waller - protecting your mental health: A practical guide for postgraduate research students in STEM
  • Office for Students - Fostering a healthy and supportive research environment for postgraduate research students
  • UKRI - Exploring mental health support for postgraduate researchers
  • Vitae - Wellbeing and mental health
  • London School of Economics - What can universities do to support the well-being and mental health of postgraduate researchers?
  • University of Kent - Mental Health and Postgraduate Researchers
  • University of Portsmouth - The Mental Health and Wellbeing of Part Time and Distance Learning Postgraduate Research Students

However, the consensus is changing. Organisations are recognising that perhaps the approach should be less about ‘owning the problem as an individual’ and more about about creating an environment so everyone is supported matters more.

Regardless of the particular circumstances of the research setting, the burden of your mental health issues should not just be left to you to treat them. We all share a collective responsibility to support each other.

The way forward

Supporting the mental health of researchers includes a number of recognised steps. Dealing with isolation and staying motivated are common challenges that effect your mental health. Imposter syndrome is a common struggle for intending researchers. This is experienced by students at all stages of their academic journey.

We are all experiencing a squeeze with living on a budget, either as families or individuals at all stages of our life. Balancing Work and Study during a PhD can lead to mental health challenges.

Tips for completion is a handy advice guide. We prepared an article about completing a PhD for intending students and researchers. Exam Stress can become a trigger event, so manage this better through our suggestions.

For more insight into the research opportunities and innovations in the sector, register for our updates on Postgraduate Studentships.