Being mindful of the postgraduate mental health epidemic

24 July marked 24/7 Samaritans Awareness Day – the Big Listen. Samaritans is a charity that offers help to anyone struggling with their mental health. Mental health problems persist, often quietly, among students and academics, and this is a topic that has been featured in the Pharmacology Matters magazine and blogs before (such as here, here and here). A 2019 PhD survey by Nature found that one in three PhD students has sought help for problems with their mental health. Perhaps now more than ever, in an ‘unsure’ time during a global pandemic, it is critical to be aware of the mental health crisis that exists in our universities and our society as a whole.

The satisfied, but unwell, student paradox

The factors contributing to poor mental health in academia and research are multi-faceted and can be unique to the individuals. In previous Pharmacology Matters articles, authors have mentioned that the university culture of long hours, isolation, and the 'publish or perish' mentality may serve as major contributors to declines in mental health.

These factors, amongst many others, were echoed in the international PhD survey of 6,000 students by Nature in November 2019. Worryingly, this survey reported that 36% of graduate students had stated that they had sought help for anxiety or depression resulting from their PhD studies. Of these students, 43% sought help from their institution. However, 18% did not feel supported and 9% did not feel that support was readily available at their institution. This is a major issue and universities must make significant changes to better support their students. On a positive note, 71% were satisfied with their PhD experience and 56% specified the academia as the sector in which they wished to work after completing their PhD.

This odd juxtaposition of poor mental health with postgraduate student satisfaction was similarly evident in the Advance HE’s annual Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) of over 50,000 postgraduate research (PGR) students. This paradox of ‘satisfied but unwell’ and ‘love–hurt’ relationship of a graduate degree has been previously referenced and may make it difficult to identify and reach out to those who may appear to be struggling. Similarly, the results of these surveys further highlights that the ‘culture’ is the major issue impacting mental health of those in postgraduate research and academia, not the job description itself.

Collision of the mental health epidemic with COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone in ways they may not have anticipated as they have adjusted to social distancing and the ‘new normal’. Unsurprisingly, this situation has been anticipated to have a significant impact on mental health. The University of Glasgow, in partnership with the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) and Samaritans, have recently launched a UK-based study involving 3,000 adults to track the psychological effects during and after lockdown. But what effect will this period have on students with existing mental health problems?

The mental health of students in academia and research may be significantly affected. In a career sector filled with uncertainty for the future, this period may enhance anxiety for those approaching the end of their studies. For many students and academics, personal circumstances and working from home has made many feel less productive compared with their usual, fast-paced work environment. The mindset of ‘keeping going’ and working from home is admirable and highlights the motivation of our academic and research communities, but we should be mindful that the new normal may not have been a smooth transition for everyone, and might be a major source of anxiety. Many universities and institutions have been supportive and understanding during this uncertain time, however, the range of unique personal circumstances and situations may render this a difficult period in which many are worried about the effect on careers or studies.

Going forward, it is imperative that the conversation among students and academics alike remains open and honest; the current situation has seen many having to balance both professional and personal commitments. Social media platforms, particularly Twitter, have allowed the scientific communities to address, communicate and begin to navigate the difficulties that may have affected our work routines and productivity.

Progress in mental health awareness

Even in light of recent events and the ever-present issues of mental health in our scientific community, we may have reason to be optimistic for the future. It seems the conversations surrounding mental health in postgraduates are being increasingly heard; last year, the first international conference on the Mental Health and Well-being of Postgraduate Researchers was organised by the University of Sussex and University of Portsmouth. This sold-out event led to a second international conference being scheduled for May 2021. The British Pharmacological Society (BPS) has given a platform to this important topic: Pharmacology 2019 (the BPS’s annual conference) included a workshop on avoiding burnout and promoting wellbeing. This was contributed to from all ranks of the BPS and was very well-received by attendees. The conversation continues within the BPS and the scientific community more broadly. This issue was listed as an essential goal in the Early Career Pharmacologist’s Vision 2019-2021.

24/7 Samaritans Awareness Day – the Big Listen

During mental health week, the Samaritans organisation launched a self-help app due to their inability to provide face-to-face services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you or someone you know is struggling to cope with poor mental health and could benefit from speaking to someone, please contact Samaritans.

Alternatively, if you feel you could assist this organisation and would like to volunteer on behalf of the Samaritans, please see how you may be able to help.



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Published: 05 Aug 2020

About the author

Niamh McKerr 

Dr Niamh McKerr is a research assistant at the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research (PGJCCR) at Queen’s University Belfast. Niamh's research is focused on the relevance and function of ion channels in cancer. Niamh completed her PhD in July 2021 at Queen’s with Professors Karen McCloskey and Ian Mills, which focused on voltage-gated calcium channels in prostate cancer. She became a Society member in 2017, has presented poster abstracts at Society conferences and is a previous member of the Early Career Pharmacologists Advisory Group (ECPAG).

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