Why are mental health problems elevated among graduate students?
Higher Education website Wonkhe also found that loneliness levels are elevated in ‘Black and Minority Ethnic’ students (and also in disabled students and international students). Both the Evans and Wonkhe studies further confirm that mental illness is often exacerbated by marginalization.
What affects the mental health of researchers?
From my lived experience, the observations I’ve made, and the conversations I’ve had with colleagues who themselves have struggled with mental health, I expatiate below upon two factors that affect the mental health of researchers and which can be targeted as avenues for solution.
In facilitating a discussion about how HEIs can support the diverse population within their walls who may be suffering with mental illness, we need to consider intersections of oppression. What this means is that depending on the context, for example, it may not always be adequate to simply lump all women researchers within a cohort and study ‘mental stressors that affect women researchers’. There needs to be a consideration of other avenues of marginalization (other than sexism alone) that have an interplay with these stressors, such as racism, homophobia and queerphobia, transphobia, and ableism to name a few. Therefore, the information gleaned may give a truer representation of lived experience which will in turn inform more nuanced solutions.
Senior Psychologist at Pearn Kandola, Guilaine Kinouani recently wrote an essay detailing the racism that her children face in school, which I found moving. The racism her children, and many like them, are subjected to in 2019 echoes what many others have faced through time, and still face within HEIs. It is thus crucial that research culture does not cause more harm to already-marginalized individuals, and in fact, that there be support to help them achieve their personal best in studies and research together with tackling institutional social injustice.
Guilaine Kinouani explains further, and unknowingly validates many of my feelings about my experiences throughout my research career:
Several factors influence the psychological health of students. Going to University is a transition move and transitions are associated with increased stress and the risk of psychological distress. Students must contend with many changes from living independently, often far away from social and family support systems, to coping with an unknown environment or culture, to mastering a new subject matter or discipline and the associated academic pressures.
This was the case with me. I was born and raised in Nigeria, then moved to Johannesburg, South Africa (with my older sister) to study for six years. While I absolutely loved the University of Johannesburg and am quite content with the standard of education I received, finances meant I was only able to visit my family once a year. This homesickness, in addition to heightened anxiety and sleep anxiety, took a toll on my everyday happiness. Guilaine Kinouani adds:
Further, there are anxieties many have about money, debts, careers and often unspoken fears about the future. Added to this are common negative experiences and structural issues related to axes of identity and intersectionality factors such race and/or disability so students from marginalised groups are at even greater risk is psychological distress or ill health. Indeed, such students often experience University spaces as violent, if not traumatic.
Dr. Kay Guccione, National Teaching Fellow at The University of Sheffield, emphasizes the need to capture specific experiences and echoes Guilaine Kinouani’s call for consideration of how marginalization affects mental health within academia:
We need much more information about which groups of students are experiencing the poorest mental health — universities should be asking what’s happening for disabled or chronically ill PGRs experiencing poverty through unpaid sick leave or who can’t afford to take time off; what’s happening for single parents who’ve travelled to the UK and are balancing a busy home life with PhD study in the context of a national environment hostile to immigration; what’s going on for postgrad students who are studying part time, remotely, and around full time jobs? I would like to see universities listen hard to hear the voices of atypical and marginalised groups of research students to understand the diversity of intersecting experiences.
Another very crucial aspect in an academic’s life is their relationship with their supervisor. In the cohort surveyed by Evans et al. (2018), approximately half the students with anxiety and depression reported a poor relationship with their Principal Investigator (PI). This relationship between student and supervisor is critical to building trust and ensuring as smooth a research career as possible.
Dr. Guccione has dedicated years to studying how trust is built within the student-supervisor relationship and is keen to do away with any preconceived notion that students with mental illness cannot have just as much success and academic impact as their colleagues without. It is important that PhD supervisors themselves should at the very least be able to signpost PhD students to where they can receive immediate help for their mental health struggles. Further, supervisors need to be adequately supported to ensure they are prepared and capable of supervising students.
Mentors too can have a huge impact on the mental health of researchers. Dr. Guccione and Dr. Billy Bryan conducted research showing that when it comes to how PhD students view their PhD degrees, supervision is the major influence on students perceptions of value of the PhD. Together with Evans’ work this shows that relationships within the academy, especially with those who bear a responsibility of overseeing our progress, play a pivotal role in our sense of wellbeing. Dr. Guccione has seen her academic role encompass mentoring, and mentoring consultations – all to fit the over-arching need of the students she has come into contact with.
Professional services staff (for example researcher developers, departmental postgrad administrators, librarians etc) are often confided in by PGRs who feel they can’t talk to their more senior academic colleagues. These staff have deep insight into both students’ experiences and also into the policies, systems and processes that exacerbate the issues students face. Universities should place value in the opinions of these staff as they can solicit and amplify data to inform new policies or initiatives and make sure we are solving structural problems as well as supporting students to develop.
Indeed, during my own PhD I had the privilege of often speaking to Dr. Guccione about personal and professional matters. This was in addition to informal chats I had with members of staff and colleagues whom I trusted, and I knew had my best interest at heart with how they signposted me to places of support. Dr. Guccione was also unsurprised by the findings in the Evans paper:
We have to acknowledge too that PGRs are part of a much bigger picture of stress, anxiety, depression and burnout within academia caused by overburdening and impossible workloads, intense monitoring of performance, career precarity, declining pay, and the recent attacks on pensions. As the group of academics with the lowest power, and the poorest prospects for job security, no wonder early career researchers feel the impact on their health so keenly.
To ensure that graduates and academics facing mental health struggles are fully supported, Evans and colleagues raise three helpful suggestions: firstly, access to support for mental health needs should be enhanced; infrastructure needs to be put in place so students and staff receive mental health education, and are also referred and signposted for help when the need arises. Secondly, there needs to be an intentional culture change accompanied by de-stigmatisation of mental illness and improved work-life balance. Thirdly, Evans and colleagues call us to action to undertake more research into the effectiveness of intervention strategies towards helping mental illness sufferers. Guilaine Kinouani gives similar recommendations:
Few months ago, driven by my own desire to see change within the academy regarding mental health, I published an essay making a number of suggestions on how the academy can enact support for those of us who have mental illness. Whilst studies into the factors that may trigger mental illness are useful to help us identify roots causes, we need to concurrently identify and implement academy-specific strategies towards support and healing. Not only will this result in a better quality of life for those affected, but it could also have a knock-on effect of improving research culture as a whole.
Therefore, it is imperative that HEIs looking to support their academics with mental health struggles intentionally act towards change. This means putting in place structures to optimise a work-life balance, creating open communication lines within departments, appointment of managers for graduates to prioritise graduate wellbeing, creating opportunities for gaining transferrable skills, intermittent checks to ensure bullying culture (both overt and covert) is not tolerated, clearly defined working hours, zero tolerance policies for any kind of bigotry, actions towards equity, and active support for sourcing financial aid and funding.
Supporting academics with mental health struggles and ensuring that the structures which exacerbate these struggles are minimised is bound to have a positive ripple effect on research culture. And in turn an improved research culture will lead to greater productivity. This should however not be the driving force behind trying to help graduates and academics: we should prioritise helping them lead a good quality of life during the time we have them within the academy. We should also arm them with the tools they need to extend this into their non-academic lives and into their futures.
Furaha is currently collaborating with Cactus Communications/Editage to conduct a global survey on mental health among researchers. Click here to learn about and take the survey.
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