By Julia Atherley
Durham University has been awarded a grant to develop an online educational resource to support postgraduate research (PGR) students’ mental health and wellbeing.
The grant follows a report conducted by Vitae which found that amongst postgraduate researchers, only 0.9% declared a mental health condition to their university.
However, 3.3% of respondents to the most recent Postgraduate Research Experience Survey reported that they had a mental health condition.
Sabrina Seel, PG Academic Officer, commented on the underreporting of mental health issues. Speaking to Palatinate, Seel said: “Admitting that you’re struggling with your mental health can have negative effects on your career and how people see you in general.
“Many PGRs are reluctant to disclose any mental health difficulties, for fear of impacting their future research and employment prospects.”
Work on the programme is to begin in June 2018 and is hoped to be completed by January 2020.
Durham Students’ Union’s recent campaign ‘PG Mental Health Matters’ stated that postgraduate students are six times more likely to experience depression or anxiety than the general population.
Speaking anonymously to Palatinate, one postgraduate student said: “The University is continuously reducing space at the same time as it expands its student numbers.
“Without a regular space to work and socialise with colleagues, I would feel very isolated and anxious, as I did before I got my own space.”
They continued: “It is promising to know that the University is taking postgraduate mental health seriously, but it is at the same time worrying that basic solutions like proper working conditions don’t seem to be a priority at the University level.
“It is left to departments, which are under pressure to expand, but simply don’t have enough room for everyone.”
Another anonymous postgraduate student pointed to the financial strains placed on PhD students. Completing a PhD often takes 3-4 years, but funding is currently only supplied for 3 years of study.
Seel continued: “It is often seen as normal to work very long hours and do extra work for your department (without getting a proper pay).
“There’s a lot of pressure to do well as you’re in a hugely competitive environment.”
The resource will focus on the relationship between supervisors and students, and identify and address specific mental health needs.
Seel highlights the lack of pastoral training given to supervisors, commenting, “there is no proper mechanism in place to support PhD candidates when things go wrong in their departments.
“I realise that the college system can be very beneficial, but not all PGRs are involved in their college, so they need an alternative support system.”
Postgraduate students have the same access to Durham University’s Counselling Service as undergraduates but are less likely to be referred by a member of staff.
The project will begin with a series of focus groups for supervisors and supervisees led by the Head of the University’s Counselling Services, Caroline Dower.
Michael Aspin, a Masters student in History and MCR Welfare Officer for St Chad’s College, said: “I think the mental health services and provision are incredibly poorly signposted.
“Much more needs to be done than the occasional SU forum and patronising ‘Postgrads are people too’ badges.
“We must work doubly hard to ensure that all students are aware that people are there to help.”
Photograph: Maddie Flisher