Reflections on researchers mental health

Following a recent Researcher Training Sub-Committee Policy Forum, Dr Sara Shinton, Head of Researcher Development / IAD Assistant Director and Ruth Meyer, Senior Policy Officer at Universities Scotland reflect on the event.

Scotland’s higher education institutions change lives through world-leading research. The researchers who do this, from PhD students to professors are highly driven and gain satisfaction from their successes. At the same time, research is uncertain; there are regular set-backs and many staff do it whilst balancing many other demands and responsibilities. Despite these known pressures it is sobering and worrying to read recent reports about mental health in higher education. The scale of the problem is far higher than imagined, with psychological distress endemic in PhD students and 37% of staff reporting a mental health disorder – far higher rates than those disclosed to their institutions.

With this evidence, we must turn our attention to solutions, so the Universities Scotland Researcher Training Sub-Committee (RTSC) Policy Forum brought together a community of over 80 people working in and with our institutions. Inspired by a range of speakers from across Scotland, the UK and Europe, institutions and individuals shared good practice about existing initiatives to support and enhance mental health. As important, we heard personal accounts of mental health giving us insights into the impact it has on individuals. All the key voices were heard on the day: researchers, their managers and supervisors, researchers into mental health, clinicians, counselling services and researcher developers.

During the day a picture emerged of the many things that undermine mental wellbeing: workloads; a lack of clarity on expectations; a lack of job security; and, pressure (internal and external) to succeed.

Despite the worrying evidence and affecting presentations, the day retained a strongly positive and “can do” ethos, launched by Professor Lesley Yellowlees, who challenged the group to come up with solutions. A large number of ideas were discussed and will be explored further by the Universities Scotland RTSC. These include:

  • Lobbying research funders to include wellbeing requirements in funding requirements or a new quality mark initiative;
  • Ensuring services to support researcher wellbeing are accessible and clearly signposted, particularly to support prevention of mental ill-health and crisis interventions
  • Embedding wellbeing in all training provided to research students and supervisors;
  • All staff and students taking personal responsibility to model healthy and balanced behaviours and promoting the importance of sleep, having creative outlets, getting outside, and exercising to support wellbeing.

We also set up a stress awareness space, using resources from MIND which encouraged people to share their own strategies for good mental health. These included the worthy (fresh air and exercise), the restful (mindfulness and reading) and a few guilty pleasures (notably Love Island!). Although these all seem like small steps to take, they are steps in the right direction and more than one speaker made the point that we need to treat our mental health like we do our physical – “exercising” to stay healthy, particularly as we have responsibilities for the health of others.

As at all events, reference was made to the location of fire exits at the start of the day. Dr Olivia Kirtley anticipated this and her presentation drew a parallel with mental health. Fire exits are there all the time. We practice fire drills. We don’t wait for a fire to run round with the signs. We should look at mental health like that. Let’s be prepared, let’s signpost and let’s support people to understand stress triggers and their buffers from the very start

The final session involved all those attending making personal pledges to respond to the challenges and ideas from the day. There’s lots to do – watch carefully and we hope you’ll soon start to see a difference.