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Mental HealthWellbeing

Working to improve mental health provision for postgraduate researchers

27 February 2018

You’ll no doubt be aware that today is an important day in Wales, being the national celebration of our patron saint, St David. What you probably aren’t aware is that it is also University Mental Health Day. This is the national campaign to focus efforts on promoting the mental health of people who live, work and study in Higher Education settings.

The mental health of postgraduate researchers is a particularly hot topic at the moment. What has caused heads to turn towards this area is the recent publication of some alarming research on the matter. For instance, a journal article was printed in Research Policy last year exploring the prevalence of mental health problems amongst PhD students at Flanders University in Belgium. The study made for grim reading. It found that one in two PhD students experience at least two symptoms of poor mental health – including feeling depressed, losing sleep or experiencing a lack of confidence.

Of course, it is possible to question the validity of the study, given its focus on a single institution and restricted sample size. That said, we know from the latest Postgraduate Researcher Experience Survey in 2017 that the UK has its own problems when it comes to wellbeing. According to the survey, 26% of postgraduate researchers currently feel unsatisfied with their lives, whilst 39% are not happy with their work-life balance. Furthermore, whilst 31% don’t feel as if they have someone to talk to about their day-to-day problems, 15% do not feel as if their research degree is worthwhile.

At Cardiff, we are working hard to ensure that our postgraduate researchers feel equipped with the skills and abilities needed to deal with the emotional, mental and physical demands of undertaking a research degree. To this end, the Doctoral Academy has taken a number of steps recently aimed at improving our wellbeing provision. Last year, Cardiff University was one of ten institutions chosen to take part in a wellbeing study run jointly by HEFCE and Vitae. We also helped the Students’ Union to promote its review of the University’s Wellbeing and Counselling services around the same time. We will use the results of these studies, which will be published over the next few months, to benchmark the situation at Cardiff against the sector and to identify priority areas moving forward. I am also leading a focus group with postgraduate researchers later this morning on this subject, in which I will be putting forward some of the Doctoral Academy’s ideas concerning mental health.

So the next few months promise to be a busy time for the Doctoral Academy. Ultimately, our goal is to create a culture in which all postgraduate researchers feel confident that they can effectively manage their own wellbeing. Nevertheless, if you aren’t at that point yet, it’s important that you don’t suffer in silence. The Doctoral Academy already provides a number of workshops and online modules in this area – including Dealing with Procrastination, Fear Less, Imposter Syndrome, Managing Stress, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Perfectionism, Staying Motivated and PhD Survival. Engaging with such training can make a big difference. There is also a peer support group through which you can talk to other postgraduate students trained in basic wellbeing techniques. This is a safe space to converse with other students who understand the kind of challenges unique to the postgraduate experience and who can provide a listening ear. Lastly, but certainly not least, you can book a face-to-face or online appointment with one of the University’s trained counsellors.

If you’ve got any ideas for how we can improve our wellbeing provision, or simply want to know more about our current offering, please feel free to get in touch. Our doors are always open!