In recent years there has been increased attention on the mental health of university students. Research has shown that there is a growing mental health crisis in undergraduate students. But recent studies has found alarming statistics specifically for postgraduate research (PGR) students:
- One in two PhD students experiences psychological distress; one in three is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder.
- The prevalence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in the highly educated general population, highly educated employees and higher education students.
- Work and organisational context are significant predictors of PhD students’ mental health.
To support PhD students improve mental health, universities can provide information and support.
Ways to improve mental health of students:
Remove shame and embarrassment
Feelings of depression or anxiety are not signs of weakness or failure. This is an incredible important and powerful message universities need to be clear on. There should be no stigma or shame attached to the issue. Students should be routinely encouraged to discuss concerns and supportive groups should be available to enable this.
Postgraduate study can be very isolating. Students will often be left alone for long periods, without feedback or guidance. Their thesis may be in an area previously unexplored. This can be isolating. Networking within their field can be a great way to linkup with people in a similar headspace, who will understand the challenges. But, at the very least, students should be encouraged to spend time with other people. Just lunch with a friend, or a phone call to a relative. Any kind of communication can help relieve the feelings of isolation.
Challenge negative thinking
Similarly to the isolation of a PhD, they can also be very mentally exhausting. For every 50 experiments they conduct, perhaps only one will be successful. Students are under constant scrutiny, and for every question answered, many more follow. In these circumstances, it is vital students are reminded and reassured that this is part of the process, and they mustn’t be too hard on themselves.
Looking after yourself may seem obvious, but for postgraduate students, it can easily fall by the wayside. Long hours in the library or lab can lead to sleep deprivation, poor eating habits, and little exercise. So, making time for themselves is essential. This can be going for a walk at lunch, joining a sports team, or committing to a proper meal every evening.
Mental Health Awareness
Mental health problems can be difficult to spot. It is possible for a condition to begin in a manageable and acknowledge way. As a supervisor you need to monitor your students. If left un-checked, manageable issues can become a genuine problems.
Signs of Mental Health Disorders:
Mental health problems may be present if a person experiences one or more of the following feelings or behaviours:
- Eating or sleeping in a different way to usual. Perhaps too much or too little
- Spending less time with people and usual activities
- Having low or no energy
- Feeling numb or like nothing matters
- Having unexplained aches and pains
- Feeling helpless or hopeless
- Smoking, drinking, or using drugs more than usual
- Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried, or scared
- Shouting or fighting with family and friends
- Severe mood swings
- New problems in relationships
- Repeatedly going over thoughts and memoriesHearing voices or believing things that are not true
- Thinking of harming yourself or others
- Difficulty or inability to carry out normal daily tasks
Engage in Learning has a Supporting Postgraduate Mental Health online training for supervisors. Created alongside Liverpool University, this course helps supervisors understand the stresses of postgraduate students, in depth. Shows how to spot the signs of poor mental health, and provides practical steps to help your students.