Mental Health and Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers: Reflections from Brighton (UKCGE)

From the 16th – 17th May, the Higher Education community and beyond descended on the Jury’s Inn Waterfront in Brighton, for the 1st International Conference on the Mental Health and Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers. The conference was organised by United Kingdom Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE), in partnership with nature research, the University of Portsmouth, and the University of Sussex.

Across the two days, presentations and roundtable discussions showcasing the latest research and best practice within PGR mental health were delivered (the conference programme can be viewed here). Such presentations also included updates from a selection of the Office for Students Funded Catalyst projects, including the PGR Wellbeing project (led by the University of Portsmouth, in partnership with Leeds Beckett University, and co-presented by Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten and I).


A range of quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods projects across the UK and internationally are exploring how PGR mental health can be supported – ranging from individual interventions, through to environment/cultural change at an Institutional level. Topics were wide-ranging and included use of pastoral tutors to support PGR mental health, exploring PGR perspectives of their study, how we can build communities, and on creating evidence-based wellbeing programmes.

A particularly poignant session from Day One (16th May) included the PGR panel in the morning, with Danielle Hayter and Mahmoud Elmarzouky from the University of Portsmouth, as well as Yasser Kosbar, and Dr Sophie Valeix from the University of Sussex, discussing their experiences of PGR study and what they felt needed to change. The discussion hit close to home for me, and for many within the room; reminding us all (if ever we needed it), what the focus should be on and why we were there.

There was agreement that best practice, particularly from the Catalyst projects, needs timely sharing across the sector; that work should also focus on solutions to the problems identified (i.e. what can we take back to our Institutions now); that there needs to be a cultural/environmental shift in Higher Education, and that PGRs should be involved in decision making (co-production).

With the recent announcement of further funded projects supporting a step change in mental health for all students (OfS Challenge Competition), student mental health more widely remains firmly in the public eye.

To read the conference updates and further learning, see #MHWBrighton on Twitter. The conference programme can be viewed here. The 2nd International Conference on the Mental Health and Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers will take place in November 2020, with conference location to be confirmed.

PGR Wellbeing team representatives (left to right): Dr Jane Creaton (PI), Mahmoud Elmarzouky (PGR), Danielle Hayter (PGR), Dr Rachel Moss (RA), Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten (Co-Investigator).

Blog post written by Dr Rachel Moss, Research Associate for the Office for Students funded PGR Wellbeing project, based within the School of Education and Sociology (EDSOC) at the University of Portsmouth.

University Mental Health Charter Roadshow

What is the Charter?

In 2018, former Universities Minister Sam Gyimah announced the development of a new University Mental Health Charter – an initiative led by Student Minds (supported by a grant from the Universities Partnership Programme Foundation) , and in partnership with the Office for Students , Department for Education , the National Union for Students , Universities UK , and AMOSSHE . The Charter will be a voluntary award, to recognise good practice in supporting and promoting mental health and wellbeing in students, as well as the wider University community (Charter FAQs can be viewed here).

How will the Charter research be conducted?

To develop the Charter, Student Minds have organised a road trip comprised of six events across the UK between March-April 2019. The roadshow aims to bring together students and University staff at all levels/areas (e.g., academics, professional staff etc.) to facilitate the co-production of the Charter. Each event consists of a number of focus groups, in addition to a keynote speaker.

Roadshow activities

I attended the event hosted by University Arts London on 27/03/19. The focus groups and activities were well organised, and delegates were presented with plenty of opportunity reflect, share their experiences (and those of their peers/colleagues), and connect with others. Student and staff were considered within discussions, to ensure that the Charter adopts a ‘whole University’ approach. Natasha Devon  – writer and mental health activist- was the keynote speaker for the roadshow, and spoke candidly and passionately (with humour thrown in) about her work, and how this could be applied within a Higher Education context.

Results from the roadshows will be analysed, and disseminated within the wider academic/policy community (e.g., via conferences, journal articles etc.). Moreover, the Charter will be a living document – updated where relevant to ensure it is still current to the Higher Education landscape.

Next steps

There is still opportunity to participate in the roadshows, with one date remaining:

Tuesday 2nd April – Cardiff Students’ Union 

Student Minds  are interested to hear from as many students and staff as possible, to help shape the Charter. The survey is available online until the 7th April.

To follow all tweets linked to the roadshow events and more, please see #UniMentalHealthCharter

Blog post written by Dr Rachel Moss (Twitter: @DrRMoss), Research Associate on the PGR Wellbeing project at the University of Portsmouth (School of Education and Sociology).

The wellbeing of NHS staff and learners – the Mental Wellbeing Commission report and relevance in Higher Education

In February 2019, the Mental Wellbeing Commission published a set of recommendations for the NHS concerning the wellbeing of NHS staff and learners (The Executive Summary can be viewed here and the Full Report here). The recommendations for the report recognise the importance of supporting the wellbeing of learners within an NHS setting, and staff members generally.

What were the key themes outlined in the report?

Twelve themes emerged from panel discussions with staff working within the NHS, bereaved families (of those who had ended their life during their employment with the NHS), with organisations demonstrating best practice, and via site visits. Themes that emerged covered preparing for transitions (through school, to further/higher education and beyond), the need for self-care/caring for the carers, taking a break, and the role of technology amongst others.

What did the report recommend?

The commission published 33 recommendations for local NHS trusts to adopt. The primary recommendation focused on the creation of a workforce “Wellbeing Guardian”, who would be responsible for the wellbeing and mental health of their staff at a board-level, in every NHS organisation, from a national to local level.

Other recommendations within the report included the creation of a Workplace Wellbeing Leader, supporting transitions, as well as quick access referral pathways for staff (e.g., for psychological therapy). The commission recognised that more could be done to support wellbeing for staff, and this could include further provision of peer support, as well as safe psychologically safe and confidential spaces.

What is the relevance within Higher Education?

At present, the mental health and wellbeing of students is of focus within Higher Education and a variety of initiatives have been developed (e.g., UKRI Mental Health Research Networks; UUK StepChange Framework), or are in development (e.g., University Mental Health Charter), which are designed to improve this.

However, little attention is being paid to the staff members in Higher Education who may be supporting students, despite public calls for staff members to be more informed and to support the early identification and prevention of mental health conditions in students (e.g., Vitae recommendations for Postgraduate Researcher Supervisors).  The Commissions statement of “who cares for the people who care for the nation’s health” (p.17, Executive Summary), becomes one of “who cares for staff members who support the mental health and wellbeing needs of students?” and the general query of “how can staff be best supported” when applied within a Higher Education context.

The wellbeing and mental health needs of staff members in Higher Education should not be ignored (e.g., “More academics and students have mental health problems than ever before”). Levels of burnout are higher than the general working population and comparable to healthcare workers. In addition, staff members in Higher Education settings are reported to have poorer levels of wellbeing compared to types of employment such as health and social work, in areas of work demands and change management amongst others (RAND, 2018). Indeed, a recent Government review (Thriving at Work (2017)) tasked employers with adopting mental health core standards. National and local initiatives are needed to support the mental health and wellbeing of staff members, alongside improving offers of student support.

Blog post written by Dr Rachel Moss (Twitter: @DrRMoss), Research Associated on the PGR Wellbeing project at the University of Portsmouth (School of Education and Sociology).