The mental health of students is a longstanding concern for universities. Universities can support student mental health by taking practical steps, both to promote and sustain wellbeing and to provide support if mental health issues arises. Some Universities have provided onsite counselling and there has been a rise in recent years of campaigns aimed at raising awareness and support for student mental health. University UK provides a ‘Step Change’ framework for mental health in higher education. This framework promotes a holistic, University wide approach. By educating and providing information and support to everyone – students and staff – the messages become embedded in the University via policies, culture and practices. In addition to this, universities are increasingly inking up with the NHS to provide services on campus.
Why is mental health an issue for universities?
Research has shown that there is a growing mental health crisis in undergraduate students. And recent studies have found alarming statistics 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 mental health problems in postgraduate students, we need to understand the causes in order to seek steps to minimise risks.
Causes of poor mental health for PGR students
Studies have shown that PGR students are more prone to mental health issues due to: social isolation and the lack of an established support network often experienced by postgraduates, with an over-reliance on a supervisor for pastoral and academic support. Funding/ financial worries, and motivation.
Providing help and support
This increased awareness of mental health and wellbeing issues among students has put pressure on universities’ and their staff. However, universities are not expected to replace services traditionally offered by the NHS. Rather, by linking up with the NHS, universities can ensure students experiencing problems can get access to the right care. But the waiting times on university counselling services is generally increasing. So, there needs to also be another approach.
The overall advice from the Office of Students (Ofs) is currently to focus on incentivising and promoting change across the whole higher education sector. The aim is to improve support for students dealing with existing mental health issues, encourage the overall wellbeing of students, and encourage universities to have systems in place to identify early warning signs.
Awareness of mental health and its importance is the first step. A healthy lifestyle with a good work/life balance will create order and structure. Students should be encouraged to talk to those around them – family and friends and their PhD mentor. Support groups should be provided and made easily available. For example, Student Minds is the UK’s student mental health charity. They work with students and members of the university community to address mental health. They run support groups so that students experiencing mental health difficulties have access to a supportive environment in which they can talk openly about life, university and mental health. Mental health is nothing to be ashamed of. Anyone who is struggling should always seek the help they need.
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.