How to Spot Poor Mental Health in PGR Students?

Spot Poor Mental Health in PGR Students?

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 universities. Evidence of this can be found in the following statistics found in 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 spot poor mental health in PGR students, and provide appropriate support, it helps for supervisors to be familiar with the signs.

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. The student communicates that they are tired and fed up with their thesis. As a supervisor this should be an important indicator you need to monitor. If left un-checked, this manageable issue can become a genuine problem.

Mental health problems are often thought of as something that can’t be fixed. And this leads to thinking we just have to live with it. This attitude is wrong and dangerous. Mental health disorders are real and debilitating. Nobody should experience mental health problems without information, support and help to manage the disorder and recover. 

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 drug use
  • 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

Causes of poor mental health for PGR students

Studies have shown that PGR students are more prone to mental health issues. This is 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.

Social isolation

Completing a PhD is a solitary pursuit. Students will often be left alone without feedback or guidance. For example, their thesis may be in an area previously unexplored. This can be isolating. 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. Students have to maintain their own pace and keep going, often without many tangible results. Understandably, this can often result in a lack of motivation which can turn into frustration and resentment. 


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.

Our Supporting Postgraduate mental Health training course can be found here