Recent years have brought increased attention to the mental health of university students. Research has shown a growing mental health crisis in undergraduate students. But, there are also 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.
The mental health and wellbeing of students is quickly becoming a high-priority concern within universities and as a result there has been a shift in awareness of the issue and how we respond to it. PGR students are distinct in their own right. As are the challenges they face, and the support they require.
Causes of issues for PGR students include: 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.
Completing a PhD is a solitary pursuit. Their thesis may be in an area previously unexplored. This can be isolating. For the most part they are on their own, without colleagues to discuss matters with. The one person they can discuss matters with – who truly understands their situation – is often their supervisor, and this can lead to an over-reliance.
Funding/ financial concerns
PGR students do not have the time to make much money whilst completing a postgraduate course. This can cause a lot of financial stress. In a typical job the work/ life balance is often protected. Employees are given a set number of days off a year and can only work a limited number of hours a day. Whilst completing a PhD this will not apply. Students often work many hours without financial reward, or any consideration for work/ life balance.
PhDs take on average three years to complete. This is a long period of time to maintain motivation. During this period students have to maintain their own pace and keep going without many tangible results. This can often result in a lack of motivation which can turn into frustration and resentment.
Providing help and support
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
Students who raise concerns should also be encouraged to speak to their GP. 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.