Loughborough PhD Social & Support Network

Mental Health Support at Loughborough University Part II

By Nathan Ritchie

As wellbeing fortnight is upon us, I thought it time to write another mental health themed blog.  First and foremost, I would like to say I am delighted that a wellbeing working group has recently been created involving Director of Doctoral Programmes from several schools, senior members of staff, the Doctoral College and members of the LSU Exec. I am really looking forward to working as part of a collective to contribute to wellbeing strategies. But working within structures can often feel a slow and ponderous and simply I have very little time left at Loughborough

Raising mental health awareness is good, but the hows and whys are  important too - BBC Science Focus Magazine

This is a follow up then from my blog last academic year which can be found here. In that blog I covered various reasons why mental health support is so important to the PGR community i.e., the community is impacted at a disproportionate rate. I also discussed potential causes behind this based on previous research by Meltcalfe et al (2018). This blog then will not cover that same ground but will instead discuss what is currently lacking at Loughborough University in regard to PGR mental health support. I apologise in advance for those parts which appear esoteric and can only urge you to revisit my first blog on mental health (MH) support to get an idea of the scale of the issue.

Whilst I recognise the strain currently facing our DR community because of the pandemic. I do not wish to be ‘pandemic determinist’ about this and want this discussion to be generalisable to previous and future generations of researchers. Boiling everything down to the pandemic has potentially worrying consequences for the ways we view MH among PGRs. MH concerns were a problem before the pandemic and will remain so long after.  Whilst funded extensions for all PGRs impacted by lockdowns would certainly go a long way in improving the mental state of our community, it is not a cure for the underlying MH problems reported prior to the pandemic.

Another issue that is not the focal point of this blog, but clearly needs acknowledging, is the state of affairs for PGRs. The funds are enough to live on, but not make plans for the future (if you are funded). The job chances, especially in academia, are looking slimmer and slimmer, all whilst PGR intake remains the same, with an eye on forever increasing the numbers and ‘fishing the pool’ in market after market. There are various considerations around the structures and practices of the institution that are of course adding to the mental health strains of our community. There are many legitimate arguments about the nature of the neo-liberal university and market forces determining decision making, rather than on education or compassionate grounds i.e. marketization of higher education  (refer you to Fairclough, 1993, Billig 2013 for an expert view). But again, whilst acknowledging this, I wish to concentrate on what more could be done in terms of mental health support more practically i.e., making use of what we have already.

A quick disclaimer. In this blog, like others, I am asking for more from certain job roles. This is discussing someone’s job and there are two complications that come with that. Firstly, people are justifiably defensive about the work they do and so when it’s under scrutiny this can cause some anxiety. Secondly, my knowledge of the practices of certain services, their working pressures and discussions behind the scenes is obviously limited. I can only speak of what I know. There is always the danger of being a backseat driver in these types of blogs. Nevertheless, the goal of looking at ways to improve mental health provision and generating discussion at the university, in my view, are more important than the above considerations.

Finally, I wish to point out that in no way should readers of this blog not consider accessing services as a result of comments made. It is important that if you need to seek help that you do so immediately.

This blog will proceed by pointing to 5 aspects that are currently lacking in terms of mental health support for PGRs at Loughborough University.  This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but five points I consider worth mentioning as a starting point.

Lack of centralised standards

A major issue with the way MH support is offered is its lack of consistency across schools. The understanding (or indeed the obduracy) of staff should not be the determinant of whether PGR’s receive support or not in their school. Key decisions around the mental health support of PGRs should be taken away from schools and should implemented centrally. This is not an issue in which to delegate. This means, for example, that mental health first aiders will be accessible to PGRs across all schools and not just those schools with more mindful staff. You cannot ringfence wellbeing help that way, just in the same way as you can’t ringfence physical first aid “Sorry I can’t help put a plaster on that, you are a student”.   Indeed, I am not sure what qualifications Deans, ADR’s, DDP’s etc. have for making such decisions about mental health support. So why put those decisions at their behest. I am not saying that all senior management have a narrow view of MH, but I am concerned that views and attitudes vary, and this leads to varied levels of support and attitudes across the school. Parity should be the goal, with the highest standard being par. At the moment, there are far too many bogies. Listen, a golf metaphor is about as good as its going to get from my limited literary skills. 

There is a real need for a wellbeing code of practice. This will provide each school with a standard that they are expected to follow. This means staff cannot just make arbitrary decisions based on their (ill) conceived notions of the current standard of support. Time for some accountability, to know what schools are doing worse (and better) than others and time to ask why certain schools are unable to achieve the standards others have. Let’s examine action plans, look at the results and demand more of schools currently not taking this issue as seriously as others.  Are there certain schools where PGRs are more likely to drop out because of MH reasons, if so, surely, we should be examining the culture within those schools? At the moment, central strategy to MH support implementation is too pusillanimous to make a real impact for our PGRs.

Lack of Resources and Funding

The perennial issue of limited funding to essential services is inarguably one of the key reasons why MH support is currently failing. It was pretty remarkable to see a video by the head of wellbeing service asking for donations to the wellbeing service earlier this year. I myself have been raising money for the service, and I am proud to so. An amusing argument was posited recently in the Marxist Student article, questioning why VC Bob is earning so much, whilst alumni and students struggle to raise £10,000 for MH support.  Whilst this highlights the disparity between what senior staff are paid, and what funds go into essential services, it does little else. So, I am not making the argument that certain staff should be paid less to fund our MH services (even if it’s a tempting argument to make). But clearly, this service should not have to seek donations to bolster the support they offer? Surely? How can, during this period, a service like this not be prioritised? What more needs to happen for this service to receive the funding it needs? Can the university, in the long run, afford the human (and PR) cost of providing underfunded MH services?  It is not an excuse to blame the current financial battering the university is taking for poorly funding the service, as undeniably this was an issue prior to the pandemic.  

Lack of community work and communication

The reason I often focus on the visibility of MH support is because it’s a tangible goal to achieve i.e., are we seeing more of the mental health wellbeing advisers (MHWA) in our communities? Whilst I recognise the efforts of MHWA’s attending a few seminars in some schools and making an effort to reach out to the community. This has been far from consistent work. Whilst I also recognise the limited time each adviser has and the number of students/PGRs they cover, I am yet, for example, to have received an e-mail from a MHWA signposting or promoting services or events that could help with my wellbeing (other schools have, which shows an inconsistency of support again, 4 have and 5 haven’t). Instead, the view is that students/PGRs reach out to the service for support. This goes against the idea of prevention before cure. Why wait until a student/PGR arranges a meeting to provide them with information about mindfulness and lifestyle tips? Indeed, if the signposting is done beforehand then this might mean earlier access to these techniques and tips and equip the PGR/student to take steps to help their own mental health before needing to reach out to the service. Where is the community work?

It seems that currently MH services are working completely separately from Faith and Spirituality centre. At a Heads Together event where the MHWA’s were present, the list of services promoted to help with wellbeing did not even include the centre.  Why is this? Does this reflect a lack of communication between the two services? Why would a service that focuses on coaching, meditation and prayer not be included? This needs to be rectified and there needs to promotion of the F&S centre more widely to PGRs from the wellbeing service and the Doctoral College. It’s a fantastic service that is currently underutilised by the PGR community. For example, whilst a PGR is waiting for the counselling service, could they be referred to the F&S for regular check ins? This kind of thing should be standard practice.

Lack of clarity over pastoral role of supervisors

Presently, there are too many conflicting beliefs about the role of the supervisor in regard to pastoral care. Quite frankly, there is too much resistance (or perhaps uncertainty) from staff on this matter. As academics, the tendency can be to over intellectualise these discussions, but simply, to be a supervisor in 2021, is to be conscious of the mental health of the PGR you are supervising. This should be embedded in annual mandatory training for supervisors. I also hear too many stories regarding malpractice by supervisors which seems particularly systemic in some schools and there is a real timidity to tackle these issues from above (by above I mean Doc College, not God). Simply, supervisors who have repeated complaints made against them should not be allowed to continue to ruin the experiences (and MH) of PGRs. Its beyond my pay grade (and influence) to suggest ways how we get to a robust evaluation process of supervisors, but it’s clear that more transparency is needed over the quality of supervision. At present, Co-Tutor records monitor quantity of meetings, but does little to address instances when a supervisor is letting down their PGRs, some measurement of quality is needed.

I do not only wish to point the finger at staff either. I might be a PGR, but not every PGR exhibits behaviour (or opinions) that I would agree with. It’s not a Us vs Them argument (as I have stated in the past). Any PGR that that does not meet the highest standards of behaviour should be disciplined accordingly. At the moment, it is quite staggering the level of laxity there is in regard to dealing with cases of poor behaviour among PGRs. There is a need to protect the wellbeing of PGRs (and other students), by holding staff and PGRs to the highest standards of behaviour.

Lack of awareness of current support & services

There are many services and resources available for mental health support at Loughborough University. If there wasn’t, I would certainly say so. Beyond the Wellbeing Service, there is the aforementioned Faith and Spirituality Centre for guidance, mentoring and a listening hear. The university subscribed PGRs to the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) that provides various resources from blogs, diet trackers, health checks and importantly, a counselling service. The Loughborough Students Union (LSU) also has peer-to-peer support services, for example, Nightline. There is of course, social opportunities through SSN and other sports groups that can help with wellbeing. It is important to recognise that this support is there and, in many cases, underutilised.

Work needs to be done on the visibility on what is on offer. This requires greater communication and a clearer structure of communication between key ‘stakeholders’ (business discourse seeping into education). A lack of communication co-ordination leads to PGRs not understanding what the institution offers. Too much is dumped on LEARN and is forgotten about by PGRs. Doc College and marketing need to continue to look at ways to better communicate services and resources. Schools have a role in ensuring wellbeing information is regularly and consistently disseminated. LSU have to start playing a more direct role in our community, posting on our social media networks and making themselves and the services far more visible. We need to see far greater material support from the union, the rhetoric over there simply doesn’t convince (or pacify) me, especially when it comes to matters of wellbeing.

Concluding thoughts

It’s been a long one, and at times, I have probably strayed off the focus to discuss other issues on my mind, so you can add ‘lack of’ coherent arguments by PGR Presidents to the list! In my limited view, a lack of clarity of vision around overarching strategy, limited communication between key stakeholders (there is that word again) and a lack of centralised standards are letting down our PGR community in terms of mental health support. Whilst underfunding of the services is a major concern, the above key points do not argue that money will solve everything, instead it asks for more from certain roles and more confidence centrally to implement rules, policies and communication that are of the highest standards regarding MH.

The above is not going to solve the MH issues of PGRs but provides practical steps to move forward and consider in relation to current support offered. Because of limit and scope, I did not tackle the need for greater awareness of international PGR issues, or parenting responsibilities etc. but these are certainly on my mind throughout the year. You can also add structure of the Doctoral programme as a key component that needs addressing.  This is likely my final blog on MH wellbeing whilst a PGR, so I hope that other PGRs will grab the baton and lobby for greater MH support in the future. Perhaps, you will be able to do it in a more eloquent and diplomatic fashion than I was able to.  

Any questions, comments, thoughts, please do not hesitate to e-mail me at: n.ritchie@lboro.ac.uk

Nathan Ritchie

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