28th March 2014 Blog

We are concerned about the mental health of PhD students

Lived experience • Research methods • Young people •

The McPin Foundation’s vision is to ‘transform mental health research’ to ensure that lived experience is at the heart of all research affecting people with mental health problems.

This means making research accessible at lots of different levels to allow people with different interests and skills to have their contribution valued in research.

One important aspect of this is that people with personal experience of mental health problems who have the interest and ability also have the opportunity to work in academic research at universities, whether as students or researchers.

Universities are the main sites of research activity in the UK. Transforming mental health research must, therefore, focus on the practice and accessibility of research work in universities.

However, a recent series of blogs in the Guardian have highlighted how poorly some universities are supporting PhD students’ to manage their mental health and the serious impact that can have for the students involved.

Working and studying in universities can be extremely stressful, as I know from experience. I have recently completed my PhD and know very well the danger of becoming isolated from others, the pressure of not knowing whether your work is good enough and whether you will be able to complete it, and the constant, nagging feeling that you should be doing more which makes quality relaxation time hard to find.

But I was lucky; I had fantastic supervisors and doing my PhD part-time meant that I had regular contact with other people and ways to escape from the all-consuming nature of a PhD. For some people, the pressures of doing a PhD, and of working in an academic environment for the first time can be unbearable.

There is evidence that the incidence of suicide among students has risen in recent years.[1] In 2011, the Royal College of Psychiatrists published a report which argued that universities needed to expand their provision for supporting students’ mental health, and called for research into why more students didn’t take up opportunities for support.

For those who go on to conduct research in academia, many continue to experience considerable stresses to their mental health and wellbeing. A survey of people working in academia[2], published in July 2013, found that two-thirds of respondents were working more than 50 hours a week, and one-third often or always experienced stress at levels they found unacceptable.

At the same time, universities have not been adequately supportive of mental-wellbeing for those who work in them. The same survey found that 44% seldom or never received support through emotionally challenging work.

Low job security, long hours, high work pressures and isolation all make academia a difficult place for people to manage their mental health. It should not be surprising, then, if people with an existing diagnosis or experience of mental health problems do not feel that this is a good environment for them.

This can have real consequences for involving people with mental health problems in research, from access to research training through academic study, to working as professional researchers in universities, and even for service user researchers getting involved academic-led work.

The culture and expectations of academic research – whether supportive or stressful – can impact on all those who come into contact with it.

Despite this, thankfully, an increasing number of people with personal experience of mental illness are choosing to work and study in academia and to use their experiences in their research.

At a recent Mental Health Research Network conference in Liverpool, two service user researchers who had undertaken PhDs and research roles in universities gave excellent presentations about their experiences and the challenges and benefits for them of doing post-graduate research. They demonstrated the potential for universities to be supportive and to demonstrate that they value their work.

There are, of course, places where well-being is taken seriously and support is in place to help students and staff. Pastoral care and wellbeing training is made available in many places. Specific programmes and organisations like Students Against Depression and StudentMinds offer support and information for people who may be struggling.

However, in many cases universities have to take this responsibility more seriously to ensure that they are not unfairly excluding people with mental health problems. Our Viewpoint survey found that in 2011, approximately 1 in 10 people had experienced discrimination in education[3].

Last year, when we asked participants to tell us more about their experiences, we heard examples of undergraduates and post-graduates becoming unwell and having to abandon their study because universities did not provide the support and flexibility that they needed to complete them. The Guardian series shows that the consequences of poor support can be even more severe for the health of PhD students.

The writers in the Guardian pieces call on universities to improve their support for staff and student wellbeing, for the sake of all those who work in academia.

As service users are increasingly valued for their contribution to research, universities also need to reflect on whether the environment they provide is supportive and inclusive or whether it is discouraging or even preventing access by people with mental health problems.

This is an area of particular interest to the McPin Foundation. We would like to see more research into ways of supporting student mental health at university, both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, including self-management and peer support as well as through formal mental health services.

If you have experience of managing mental health as a student or working in academia, or if you have considered further study and are concerned about how you would manage this, we’d love to hear from you.