PGR Wellbeing Mid-Project Update

The mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate researchers (PGRs) (e.g., PhD, ProfDoc etc.) and the student population generally is in the public focus. Reports of the mental health difficulties of students (e.g., The Independent, BBC News) continue to make for concerning reading. In August 2018, I introduced the PGR Wellbeing project in a blog post for the MICE Hub – a project that aims to improve the mental health and wellbeing of PGRs by improving mental health literacy and social support. We are now at the midway point for the project, which is due to be completed in January 2020. Our current project-related activities are as follows:

Pre-intervention survey
  • The pre-intervention survey was completed between October – November 2018 (n = 241), with further recruitment from Leeds Beckett University planned for February 2019.
  • Data analysis is ongoing, but the data suggests that the majority of researchers were experiencing mild-severe non-specific psychological distress, and that focusing on improving wellbeing generally may help to reduce this (e.g., improving individual knowledge of mental health conditions may be beneficial).
Interventions

 

 

 

 

 

Image – PGRs attending the co-production workshop in December 2018

  • We ran an initial co-production interventions workshop with PGRs December 2018, and sought feedback from PGRs for the proposed project-related interventions.
  • PGRs were interested in developing interventions, being PGR mental health ‘champions’ and representing PGRs at the University of Portsmouth at the UKCGE conference in May.

Online resources

  • An online development team at the University of Portsmouth have been seconded to develop online mental health and wellbeing resources with PGRs, ready to go live in October.

Mentoring circles

  • After the initial consultation with PGRs in December, mentoring circles will be developed and piloted with PGRs, the Graduate School and the Wellbeing Service, ready to go live in October.

Supervisor training session(s)

  • We delivered an initial supervisory training workshop in November 2018, which covered a wide range of topics included the role of the supervisor, pedagogies, and identification of mental health problems, guidance, and referral, amongst others.
  • A further workshop is planned for 12th February 2019 in the Graduate School.
Next steps for the project

We will be developing our project-related interventions (e.g., online resources, mentoring circles, supervisor training) with PGRs, ready to go live in October 2019. Our project partner, Leeds Beckett University, will be evaluating the tools and guidance that we develop at the University of Portsmouth from October 2019 onwards.

Conference

In partnership with UKCGE, Nature Research and the University of Sussex, we will be co-delivering/presenting an International Conference on the Mental Health and Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers from 16th-17th May 2019, at the Jury’s Inn Waterfront, Brighton.

The purpose of the event is to discuss and update delegates on sector policy developments (nationally and internationally), institutional strategies, research, and good practice in the field of PGR mental health and wellbeing. The conference is aimed at researchers, as well as practitioners, within Higher Education.

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

Project-related updates will be posted periodically on the MICE hub website and Twitter. General information about the project is available on the project-relate website. Details are as follows:

Email: pgrwellbeing@port.ac.uk

Twitter: @Pgrwellbeing

Project-related website

I would like to get involved/I know someone who may be interested

If you are a PGR (or know someone) at the University of Portsmouth who would like to get involved with helping us develop our interventions, please get in touch –  pgrwellbeing@port.ac.uk.

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). 

The Healthy Minds programme in schools

Evidence suggests that half of mental health conditions start before the age of 14, and up to three quarters by the mid-twenties. Schools may be well placed to improve the wellbeing of their pupils, and to improve their quality of life, through delivery of effective Personal, Social, and Health Economic (PSHE) education. Researchers at the London School of Economics, in partnership with Bounce Forward, and the Education Endowment Foundation, secured funding to develop a model to improve the quality of life of pupils.

What were CYP taught in the Healthy Minds Curriculum?

The Healthy Minds curriculum was a four-year course consisting of one hour weekly lessons (113 over four years), designed for children and young people aged between 11- 15 (Years 7 – 10 in English Secondary Schools). Fourteen core modules were taught to students, and covered important general life skills such as resilience, mental health, and social and emotional learning. Each lesson was structured, with teaching materials, support, and training available per module (a total of 19 training days for the curriculum).

How was the Healthy Minds curriculum trailed?

Study recruitment in the intent-to-treat trial began in 2013-2014 and was phased over two years, with involvement of 34 schools, and 39 school-cohorts. Schools were recruited into in the treatment arm (3,021 students involved) or in the control (1,613 students involved). The study team were interested in evaluating whether the curriculum had an impact on CYP health-related quality of life outcomes (e.g., emotional wellbeing), and utilised the Child Health Questionnaire-CF87, as well as the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaires, Life satisfaction ladder (0-10), and the Child Anxiety Related Disorders Questionnaire, to assess their aims. Data was collected at three points during the trial – at the beginning of the CYP school involvement (2013-2014), two years later (2015-2016) and at the end of their involvement (2017-2018).

What did the research find?

The initial analysis focusses on five outcomes – global health, life satisfaction, physical health, emotional health, and behaviour. Key outcomes from the preliminary analysis were:

  • Students who completed the programme had higher attainment in global health (by 10 percentiles, out of 100), compared to children in the control group, with improvements noted after two years of teaching the curriculum.
    • Similar results were observed for physical health, and life satisfaction.
  • An improvement in child anxiety-related disorders was noted for scores of pain disorder, separation anxiety, and school avoidance.
What was the impact of the trail?

The authors hail the Healthy Minds curriculum as an effective, evidence-based approach to teaching life skills in secondary schools. Moreover, the approach is described as low cost to schools, at £23.50 per pupil, per year. The full interim report for Healthy Minds, from researchers based within the London School of Economics, can be viewed here. The impact of the Healthy Minds curriculum on education outcomes (e.g., GCSE grades) will be published in 2020.

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).

 

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