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

 

Safeguarding, Signs of Safety and ‘Safety First’- the Dutch and English contexts

On the 7th of Dec, Wendy Sims-Schouten gave a talk (a ‘masterclass’) at the Verwey-Jonker institute in Utrecht, the Netherlands on child protection and safeguarding in the Dutch and English contexts. The Verwey-Jonker institute is a research centre for social sciences research and impact.

The talk was based on research undertaken by Kayleigh Rivett (research assistant at the University of Portsmouth) and Wendy Sims-Schouten (associate professor) with a focus on risk driven care in cases of child abuse and domestic violence.

Comparing key documents used in the Netherlands (namely ‘Working together first for safety’, by  Vogtlander and Van Arum, 2016) and England (the NSPCC, 2013 document on ‘Signs of Safety‘) and data from interviews with 17 Dutch and English safeguarding practitioners and professionals.

The research has highlighted some key differences in practical applications in the Netherlands and England. In England, stronger reference is made to involvement of the education system in safeguarding and related multi-agency collaborations, whilst in the Netherlands more links are made with the prosecution system and the police here.

In both countries the importance of muli-agency teamwork is highlighted and flagged up, but there are also signs of ongoing problems in this area – in part due to ongoing cuts in funding and a patchwork of practice. Both countries show similar objectives in relation to developing good working care and individualised support that is inclusive and benefits the family as a whole.

Yet, whilst the Dutch approach is ‘head-on’, with clear procedures in order to ‘listen to families’, the English approach makes reference to ‘protocols’ and the ‘voice of the child’, which is not as clearly defined as the Dutch approach. In both countries though, there is a sense that more can be done to support the most vulnerable people. The talk was attended by academics, as well as social workers and developmental psychologists.

Dr. Wendy Sims-Schouten is project lead for the MICE Hub and Kayleigh Rivett is contributor and author of content for The MICE Hub at The University of Portsmouth School of Education and Childhood Studies.

*To reference/cite this article as follows: The MICE Hub, Tuesday 11th December 2017, Safeguarding, Signs of Safety and ‘Safety First’- the Dutch and English contexts.*

Anti-Bullying Week: 13th – 19th November 2017

This week (Monday 13th-Sunday 19th November) is anti-bullying week. It is organised by Anti-Bullying Alliance and a whole host of charities and organisations are on board to support this, including several schools and other educational settings. This accompanied by an explosion of social media hashtags including #antibullyingweek, #stopbullying and #abw17. This year the theme is supporting equality and difference in schools with the tag line:

‘All Different, All Equal.’

The effects of bullying, especially on people’s mental health, are not unknown, yet it is still a relatively common occurrence; with many cases going unreported or unresolved. The impact of bullying on mental health can vary from low self-esteem and a feeling of worthlessness, to severe depression and anxiety; and in extreme cases, may lead to serious self-harm or even suicide.

Many of the MICE Hub’s dedicated team continue to engage in research surrounding bullying, particularly cyberbullying and bullying relating to obesity; including our project lead, Dr. Wendy Sims-Schouten.  The MICE Hub team understand the effects bullying has on life-course outcomes for individuals and are determined to pave the way to making a difference through their research activities. To find out more about the research that our team are engaged with you can visit our ‘meet the team’ page, and follow the link to their research profiles where you will find links to their publications.

The Anti-Bullying alliance are also aware of the huge impact of bullying on the lives of most people in one form or another, especially children and young people. The link between bullying and mental health is supported by evidence. The Anti-Bullying Alliance says:

“Young people who have experienced bullying are more likely to experience mental health issues and those who have mental health issues are more likely to be bullied.”

With this in Mind, The Anti-Bullying Alliance teamed up with Young Minds in 2015 on a project to raise awareness of the impact of bullying on mental health. Here is a summary of some of their key findings:

  • Bullying has a significant effect on young people’s mental health, wellbeing and identity
  • A lack of response to bullying can cause young people to develop unhealthy coping strategies, such as self-harming; which may lead to them disengaging from learning and social activities
  • Young people need support for their mental health through a collaborative approach that is led by them in a non-stigmatising manner
  • Schools must provide a safe environment for young people to talk about their issues with bullying and their mental health
  • The emotional needs of both the vicitims of bullying and the bullies themselves, must be recognised and supported by schools
  • Adults must engage with active listening when a young person reports bullying

Bullying UK are part of Family Lives, a charity providing support to families to enable them to access information, advice and services to create a level playing field. Bullying UK is a fundraising campaign dedicated to the prevention and action against bullying. This year they have organised a variety of promotional activities including; Wear Blue Day on Friday 10th November as well as wristbands. They have also produced a variety of free resources for schools that anyone can access.

One of the issues that is commonly tackled by all organisations striving to beat bullying is the term, ‘banter’. There are many who are campaigning to see the reframing of this term as a recognised form of bullying, including the National Children’s Bureau. The MICE Hub team, Anti Bullying Alliance and Bullying UK all express strong opinions on this matter and look to see it seriously addressed in the future.

*Please note all opinions expressed and information provided is solely that of The MICE Hub and its associates*

*To reference/cite this article as follows: The MICE Hub, November 15th 2017, Anti-Bullying Week: 13th-19th November 2017.*