I am Nathan Ritchie, a third-year PhD student, from the Social Sciences. This is the first, of I hope many, of a series of blogs I intend to write about academic life. Today I will discuss the heavy and complex topic of mental health support at Loughborough University. A couple of things to declare before I get started. Firstly, I am not a researcher in mental health (my brain capacity would not allow it!), my understanding is limited to anecdotal experiences and some light research around the topic. As a rep of my school, I have been lobbying for better mental health support for PGRs for three years, but really, it is an issue of interest for me more than any expertise I have. Okay, so I have limited brain capacity and I know nothing. Good start. Secondly, any critiques of services should certainly not discourage you from reaching out to them. If you feel you need help or support, make sure to seek it straight away.
As a PGR I have a one in two chance of experiencing psychological distress, and a one in three risk of having a common psychiatric disorder (Leveque et al, 2017). According to PRES in 2019, only 14% of PGRs said that they only had low levels of anxiety, compared with 41% in the general population. This is not only an issue of our health, but it is also an economical one for the university. If the PhD crisis is left to deteriorate, it could affect the supply of researchers for the research industry and cause considerable cost to institutions as it may lead to higher dropout rates or weaker research. Even with a large sample size, it would be difficult to pinpoint exactly what causes PGR’s to suffer mental health issues at a higher rate than the general population. Safe to say its multiple factors. Worries about finding work, financial concerns, research related stress, timescales, imposter syndrome, workload, doing a PhD under pandemic conditions! All of the above? Not to mention the perennial issue of PGR exploitation. You are at greater risk if you are an international student, have childcare responsibilities, feel isolated from campus or staff, or a part-time student (Metcalfe et al, 2018). There has also been a normalisation of struggle vis-à-vis PhD experience which is so explicitly evident in social media memes, but also in the language we use, you may have heard before ‘ in order to survive your PhD’ or ‘to keep sane during your PhD’ or ‘Second year blues’.
Every school on Loughborough Campus has a wellbeing adviser, they are a useful point of contact for PGR’s who may be having initial concerns with their mental health. Effectively, advisers are there to have a conversation with you, contact necessary people, and signpost. It is great that we have them for support, but the system is far from perfect. The referral form can be a repellent, asking someone to detail their mental health concerns can often intimidate the individual seeking help. Advisers could be more visible in the community, they should be at inductions, and reach out to PGRs by sending online resources, and promoting mental health weeks. Counselling is another option, but often there are long waiting lists, which is not a Loughborough University specific problem by any means! It could not be ideal, that individuals who are in a fragile state of mind, have to wait 3-4 weeks for an appointment. It could be, that counselling is not for them, and CBT is a better solution, so the PGR has had to wait three weeks for some hope of help, just to find out that counselling is not beneficial. This issue has to be rectified and is indicative of an overstretched mental health support system.
The first point of contact for PGRs at Loughborough is their supervisor. This has recently been reaffirmed during lockdown in correspondence from Liz Peel. It is generally recognised that supervisors should provide basic pastoral care, but in practice this is often ill-defined, and not understood by both PGR and supervisor. What we do know through Metcalfe’s study is that difficulty in supervisor relationships is a common reason for wellbeing issues in PGRs. Some PGRs may also feel uncomfortable raising mental health concerns with their supervisors in fear of jeopardising any future career prospects. Some supervisors may feel ill-equipped, others will say it does not fall within their job description. Regardless, there appears no systematic way or forum to discuss whether supervisor relationships are adding to or taking away from a PGRs mental health. For instance, there are no questions in PRES about pastoral care and supervisors.
A recent development in schools is the Mental Health First Aider (MHFA)– the idea is to train staff to support, in a more informal way, those who may be experiencing a mental health concern. Of course, the majority is (and should be) signposting but it is a real signal of intent from staff, that give them the choice, and they are willing to do their part to support one another. But MHFA training is not open to PGRs, and some MHFA see their remit as only staff. Why is it PGR’s who are passionate about mental health support are not offered training? Some schools (like mine!) do not have any MHFA. So that currently, if I belonged to SSEHS, I would receive a better standard of mental health support, than in Social Sciences. This disparity should not exist, the goal with mental support across the university should be parity, pas une loterie.
The inaugural mental health wellbeing week was a positive step forward, and a sign that the Doctoral College are cognisant of the importance of offering PGR’s tools to deal with their wellbeing. There were plenty of events and the week can be looked back upon as a triumph for the Doctoral College. With that said, mental health events must be held throughout the year and should become a fixture in the Doctoral College event calendar They should look beyond getting PGRs to be more productive and confront the reality that many PGR’s are struggling to function under the weight of their mental health struggle. Networks need to be set-up, centrally from the Doctoral College, giving those PGRs who are currently struggling, outlets to share their issues with one another.
I certainly do not have the knowledge to tell about every peer-to-peer scheme that has been setup to help with PGR mental health. The #ME initiative seems a cool idea and it was started by a Loughborough alumnus, it describes itself as ‘the middle ground between chatting to your friend who perhaps can’t relate and professional help which can be costly inaccessible’ and you can even become a facilitator, check it out. You can also write a blog for Student Minds, a great way to get your thoughts down on paper and help each other by sharing experiences.
Metcalfe argues there needs to be systemic change in the way HE institutions deal with mental health support. So, what can be done? Metcalfe stresses need for supervisors to have some type of mental health literacy, as they are often best placed to spot signs of declining mental health with their PGR. This could be taken a step further by introducing a ‘third-party’ akin to a personal tutor, that the PGR can go to discuss general PhD life matters. Extra work for staff is likely not to be welcomed right away, but it should be a simple system of you take my PGR, and I take yours.
For a more ‘bottom-up’ approach, buddy systems can be introduced as are implemented in some schools, giving inductees a point of contact can help establish connections right off the bat. A mental health committee (*screams of no more meetings*) should meet once a year, with representatives from the PGR community, mental health & wellbeing team, and Doctoral College, to discuss progress on the mental health. This would go a long way to ensure constant discussions about innovative ways to help the issue are taking place.
Institutions move ponderously, minor changes are normally big successes. It requires a collective effort from PGR representation, LSU, Doctoral College, supervisors, and executive staff to make sure PGR’s finish their PhD’s, better off for the experience, not saddled with mental health issues.
Thanks for reading- any thoughts shoot me an e-mail at: N.Ritchie@lboro.ac.uk, or follow me on Twitter @NathanRitchie16.
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