Improving postgraduate research student wellbeing – the role of mental health literacy and social support

There has been recent media attention on the extent of mental health problems in undergraduate students at Universities across the UK, particularly in light of recent student suicides. Concerns about the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate research students have also been highlighted.

What does the research say?

Recent evidence from Levecque, Anseel, De Beuckelaer, Van der Heyden, and Gisle (2017) highlighted that one in two PhD students experienced psychological distress, and that one in three was at risk of a common mental health problem (e.g., depression). In addition, PhD students were more likely to experience mental health problems generally, compared to other highly educated groups of individuals. In another study, higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress has been reported in PhD students, compared to individuals of a similar age (Barry, Woods, Warnecke, Stirling, & Martin, 2018).

How are mental health problems being addressed?

There is a clear need for Universities, and other relevant organisations to explore and provide practical solutions for how mental health problems can be prevented, recognised, and managed, in postgraduate research students, as well as more widely within the academic community.

Given reports of increased psychological distress in postgraduate research students, how is this being addressed?

In terms of policy, Universities UK recently developed a Step Change Framework, which recommends that Universities consider mental health across all University activities, and in doing so, promote healthy and supportive working environments. Good mental health should be everyone’s business, not just student services.

Vitae, a leading organisation for researcher development, recently made a series of recommendations for Universities, as well as other key institutions, to improve the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate research students (Vitae, 2018). These recommendations emphasised that Universities should focus on the prevention, recognition, and management of mental health problems in postgraduate research students (e.g., signposting to mental health resources).

Research funding is also being made available. Earlier this year, the Office for Students and Research England awarded a portion of £1.5 million to 17 projects at a number of Universities within the UK, for supporting projects that aimed to improve the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate research students .

How can the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate students be improved?

Research suggests that increasing mental health literacy (knowledge of, attitudes towards, and ability to seek care for mental health problems; Jorm, Korten, Rodgers, Jacomb, & Christensen, 2002), may increase the willingness of undergraduate students experiencing psychological distress to seek help (Gorczynski, Sims-Schouten, Hill & Wilson, 2017).  Importantly, increasing mental health literacy may provide staff members with the knowledge to respond appropriately to a disclosure of mental health problems from a student (Gulliver, Farrer, Bennett, & Griffiths, 2017). 

In addition, social support (emotional and practical support a person believes is available to them when they need it; Cohen & Syme, 1985), may reduce the risk of mental health problems and improve recovery if they develop (Leach, 2014). Social support can be improved through provision of group mentoring circles, which increases social interactions and sense of belonging (Darwin & Palmer, 2009).

Few research studies have examined methods of supporting the mental health and wellbeing in postgraduate research students specifically.

What is the postgraduate research student wellbeing project about?

The project aims to improve student wellbeing by increasing mental health literacy and social support by:

  1. Undertaking a survey of PGR students, to establish baseline data on mental health literacy, wellbeing, and perceptions of social support;
  2. Developing mental health literacy resources to underpin enhanced students and staff inductions;
  3. Establishing mentoring circles of PGR students and an experienced mentor from outside of their supervisory team;
  4. Assessing the effectiveness of the project-related interventions against baseline data.

How will we conduct our research?

 We will distribute an online postgraduate research student mental health and wellbeing survey to postgraduate research students, as well as interventions which will focus on the development of online mental health resources, supervisor training, and the development of mentoring circles.

What are the next steps for the project?

The project will officially launch with an online survey in October 2018. The survey will be available for all postgraduate research students within the University of Portsmouth and Leeds Beckett University to complete, and will be advertised at both Universities soon. The interventions will be trailled within one faculty at the University of Portsmouth from November 2018, and from October 2019, will be trailled in all other faculties within the University of Portsmouth and Leeds Beckett University. From January 2020, the results of the project will be disseminated sector wide, with support from Vitae.

How can I keep updated on the progress of the project?

Project-related updates will be posted on the MICE hub website, project-related website, and Twitter. Details are as follows:

Email: pgrwellbeing@port.ac.uk

Twitter: @PgrWellbeing

Project-related website

About the project

The postgraduate research student wellbeing project is funded by the Office for Students until January 2020. The University of Portsmouth are leading the project, and will be working closely with Leeds Beckett (partner institution), Office for Students, and Vitae (project dissemination). In addition to other co-investigators, the MICE HUB researchers involved in the project are: Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten (@DrWendySch), Dr Paul Gorczynski (@PaulGorczynski) and Dr Rachel Moss (@DrRMoss).

About the author

Blog post written by Dr Rachel Moss, Research Assistant for the Office for Students postgraduate research student wellbeing project. Dr Moss is based within the School of Education and Sociology at the University of Portsmouth.

References

Barry, K. M., Woods, M., Warnecke, E., Stirling, C., & Martin, A. (2018). Psychological health of doctoral candidates, study-related challenges and perceived performance. Higher Education Research & Development, 37(3), 468-483. doi: 10.1080/07294360.2018.1425979

Cohen, S. E., & Syme, S. (1985). Social support and health. Sam Diego, CA, US: Academic Press.

Darwin, A., & Palmer, E. (2009). Mentoring circles in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 28(2), 125-136. doi: 10.1080/07294360902725017

Gorczynski, P., Sims-Schouten, W., Hill, D., & Wilson, J. C. (2017). Examining mental health literacy, help seeking behaviours, and mental health outcomes in UK university students. The Journal of Mental Health Training, Education and Practice, 12(2), 111-120. doi: doi:10.1108/JMHTEP-05-2016-0027

Gulliver, A., Farrer, L., Bennett, K., & Griffiths, K. M. (2017). University staff mental health literacy, stigma and their experience of students with mental health problems. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 1-9.

Jorm, A. F., Korten, A. E., Rodgers, B., Jacomb, P. A., & Christensen, H. (2002). Sexual orientation and mental health: results from a community survey of young and middle–aged adults. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 180(5), 423-427.

Leach, J. (2014). Improving mental health through social support: building positive and empowering relationships. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868-879. doi: 10.1016/j.respol.2017.02.008

 

Mental Health Awareness Event, University of Portsmouth

To coincide with Mental Health Awareness week (14-20 May), the University of Portsmouth is hosting a special event to provide greater understanding of a range of mental issues faced by children.

Researchers are aiming to improve mental health in young people.

The Mental Health in Childhood and Education (MICE) Hub and School of Education and Childhood Studies at the University is holding its second Mental Health Awareness event on Thursday 17 May from 9:30am to 3pm.

This event will focus on mental health and wellbeing from early childhood to adulthood and is in response to proposals in a recent green paper to transform NHS mental health care for young people. These proposals are based on three key elements: a teacher at every school and college becoming its designated lead for mental health; help for schools from new mental health support teams; and the guarantee of help within four weeks.

The focus of the day is ‘Children’s Well-being and Lived Experiences of Health and Well-being’ and will feature two keynote talks:

  • ‘A Good Childhood? Children’s well-being in the UK’ by Larissa Pople, Senior Researcher and expert in children’s well-being and poverty at the Children’s Society, London; co-author of the ‘Good Childhood Report’.
  • ‘Attempting to get at the lived experience of health and well-being: working with interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA)’ by Professor Jonathan Smith, Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychological Sciences, Birbeck, University of London.

Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten, Reader (Associate Professor) in Childhood Studies and Head of the Mental Health in Childhood and Education (MICE), said: “The purpose of our mental health event is to add to the ongoing debate on how we can best support the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people, by specifically focussing on issues faced by vulnerable groups of children, such as children in care, and children on the margins of society and offering an insight into barriers and possible solutions.”

As well as the keynote talks, there will be panel discussions in which members of the academic community share their research on mental health and wellbeing. In the afternoon, the School of Education and Childhood Studies will launch its new IPA (interpretative phenomenological analysis) Forum, with a specific focus on work around mental health and wellbeing.

Wellbeing Workshop – Health and Wellbeing Theme, University of Portsmouth

The University of Portsmouth’s Health and Wellbeing Theme recently hosted their first Wellbeing Workshop:

Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten attended the University of Portsmouth’s Wellbeing Workshop on Tuesday 24th April at which she presented The MICE Hub to an audience of approximately fifty University of Portsmouth staff from across faculties and chaired a breakout session around wellbeing in childhood and education.

Increasing outreach for the MICE Hub:

Dr Sims-Schouten explained the purpose of the Mental Health in Education Hub and invited all attendees to book a place for the MICE Hub’s second Mental Health Awareness Event to take place on Thursday 17th May. A plethora of research is taking place across the University linked to the MICE Hub including projects specifically linked to wellbeing in childhood and education.

Reaching an interested audience:

The MICE Hub was well received and generated interest for the breakout session which included discussions around the support of autism in higher education and how technology could be used to improve this which linked to ideas around inclusivity and assessment and how to ensure assessment is for learning rather than of learning.

Potential for future collaboration and projects:

The ideas generated during this workshop will be considered for their potential to develop in to project proposals with the aim of generating external funding linked to the health and wellbeing theme so that impactful research linking to wellbeing in childhood and education can take place. This will be facilitated by follow-up sessions to be organised by the Health and Wellbeing Theme Director, Professor Gordon Blunn.