Why universities need to sit up and listen to students with mental health problems

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Good afternoon PhD chums! I’ve been thinking a lot about the amazing conversations about mental health that have been started over the last few weeks and who they are reaching. It’s great that we’ve all started chattering, building a community of support and sharing our experiences. However, I have been wondering who has been listening to these conversations and and whether we can really make any difference. Why should student experiences of mental health be of importance to our universities and research institutions? Obviously mental health is of great importance to those students who experience difficulties, but how can we push these issues on the agenda for universities? Seeing as I’m just sitting here waiting for my favourite builder to come and fix my roof (for the third time) and I thought I’d write a little something about why universities need to sit up and listen to us!

PhD attrition is super-expensive! It’s no secret that academic culture is under increasing pressure to provide evidence of demonstrable impact. As publicly funded researchers, we have a duty to the public who fund us to show that we are not wasting their money. This makes PhD attrition a real problem. So let’s talk money. The average attrition rate for PhD students is somewhere in the region of 40%. My stipend is £13,726 per year plus funding for research, plus fees, travel budget and training budget, which I think is pretty standard. For argument’s sake, let’s take a small department like the one I work in. We took on 5 new students last year. Even if all the students who do not complete their PhD leave after one year, which is a conservative estimate, a 40% attrition rate means that my funding council is wasting over £40 000 per year on research which will not be completed. That’s only in one small department.

There are many reasons why PhD students may not complete or submit their thesis. I am not suggesting that all of the students who give up their PhD do so due to mental health issues. However, the flood of responses I have received from current and ex-PhD students around the world attests that mental health is a common issue and that inadequate support for those experiencing problems with their mental health is a major factor in the decision to leave a studentship. In an environment which has been described as “depressogenic”, a more open and flexible attitude towards mental wellbeing and better provision of counselling and support resources for post-graduate students could allow those who experience difficulties to learn to cope with them and go on to complete their research.

What is a PhD for? An obvious solution to this problem might be only to accept into a studentship those who will almost certainly be able to complete a PhD; those with experience of carrying out research, of writing papers and presenting at conferences. But you know what? Even the most perfect PhD candidate can have mental health problems. And isn’t the purpose of a PhD partly to allow the student to develop the skills required to become a fully-fledged researcher? I strongly believe that there is no such thing as someone who is just “smart enough to do a PhD” and that this suggestion is at the root of many of the feelings of inadequacy that we experience as PhD students. This sort of thinking allows those who run into problems to blame themselves and perhaps to think that they were never cut out for a PhD in the first place. DOing a PhD is a career choice like any other and, with adequate support and good supervision, there are few reasons why students should not be able to complete. This culture of self-blame allows universities to ignore the systemic problem of health issues and PhD attrition.

Is research carried out by those with mental health issues worth less than research carried out by ‘metally healthy’ people? The question here is really “how do we value research carried out by those who are in some way less able than others, whether that is due to mental health issues of physical disabilities?”. By providing inadequate support, funding and time allowances, this is the message that universities are sending: that research carried out by those with mental and physical health problems is not valued. Think about your department. How many of your colleagues experience mental or physical health problems? I bet it’s not many. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and the Association of University Teachers suggests that those with disabilities are vastly underrepresented in academia and that academics may be reluctant to disclose their disability status. I do not believe that my contribution to research is in any way less important than anyone else’s, just because I happen to suffer from depression. Yet we accept this from our universities.

Are we going to take this sitting down? NO! So what can we do? Ask your university, your post-graduate convener, your class rep, your funding council, anyone what they are doing to provide assistance for students who experience mental health issues. I emailed Glasgow Uni and asked them to have a conversation with me about PhD students and mental health. I haven’t had a reply yet but I’ll keep trying. It’s in their own interest to support their students. Keep on talking to each other and sharing your stories. @PHDisabled is doing a marvelous job with this. Let’s all continue to keep this conversation going.

Well, thanks everyone for listening to my rant. Treat yourselves to some nice cake and coffee as a well done! The roof man still hasn’t turned up so I’m off to yoga to work off my rage.

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One response to “Why universities need to sit up and listen to students with mental health problems

  1. Wow I’m glad its not just me that feels this way. I’m a master’s student hoping to move on to a PhD but there is so much emphasis put on grades that it makes me feel so inadequate, I’m not good at exams and it has held me back throughout my course. I’m great at paper writing and giving presentations, doing research, etc. All the things that really matter for a research post. But you can guarantee that my less than perfect exam scores will be the biggest thing they look at, and then send me packing. 😦

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