In mental health awareness week, with the current flurry of activity in HE focusing on the pressures on researchers and the impact this is having, (not least Research England funding projects through a £1.5 million programme), it can be tempting to feel that we’ve crossed a threshold of acceptance and are working to create a better culture in academia. The Investigating Mental Health in the Research Community event jointly organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry, Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Biology, Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (and attended by the Royal Astronomical Society) gave attendees some optimism about academic culture. It highlighted a range of useful resources, good practice and began to build a community of scientists and engineer who are committed to change.
Although I have no wish to burst the bubble of the day, I did use the phrase “preaching to the choir” at one point. Although it was important to connect those of us who want to arrest and reverse the negative impact academic research is having on its community’s mental health, we probably aren’t the problem.
There are many different reasons mental health is being talked about with so much concern and we heard from Dr Susan Guthrie from RAND, co-author of the 2017 report “Understanding Mental Health in the Research Environment” who set the scene for the day with some alarming headlines.
- Higher education staff report worse wellbeing than those in other employment
- Causes of stress includework demands, change management, managerial support and poor role clarity
- The majority of university staff find their jobs stressful
- PhD students face the same challenges as other researchers
- Academics aren’t disclosing mental health problems
- Mental health is a gendered issue, with women more likely to have issues
- Spending more time on research reduces stress
- Poor wellbeing negatively impacts on productivity
- Mental health interventions haven’t been properly evaluated
Having been characteristically frank in my presentation about my views on the reasons for declining researcher mental health, I was asked what I would do to fix it. I had a few suggestions but I struggled to answer because I don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t properly evaluate mental health interventions. We don’t have reliable evidence about what causes problems (Susan began her talk with some serious caveats about the data they had drawn on for their report). And many of us are fearful about doing more harm than good if we try to help. An important early step is to properly understand what is going on.
This doesn’t need to stop us in our tracks though. There are things we can do and many resources to support individuals, communities and institutions who want to do more. Universities UK published a framework last year to help university leaders support student mental health:
The Institute of Physics was an “early agitator” with the publication in 2016 of its Resilience Toolkit* to support the physics community and included interviews with undergraduates, PhD students, postdocs, academics and the head of a School of Physics.
The interviews were analysed and generated 12 pieces of advice for better resilience:
- Have motivating goals
- Have realistic goals
- Build a community
- Awareness of imposter syndrome
- Take proper breaks
- Ask for help
- Find perspective
- Work to your strengths
- Develop coping strategies
- Look at failure differently
- Focus on what you can do
- Know what works for you
Although only available to members, at the University of Edinburgh we were inspired by this guide to conduct our own interviews which led to the publication of two guides for postdocs last summer written by our intern Amy (she also blogged as she was researching and writing the guides)
One of the great joys of my role at Edinburgh University has been the connection with Fearless Femme, an online magazine designed to counter the negative voices and messages that young women hear online with positive ones. I’d strongly encourage you to look at their articles and approach and to pass on details to all young women around you. We can’t reach our students in the way this magazine does and we support it because we need to use all the channels and mechanisms in our means to reach people, especially when they are vulnerable.
We won’t find one solution to the mental health crisis, we will need many. Some of the most effective solutions are things we can all do. Look at the list above and think about how you can support everyone around you. One of the most memorable moments of the day was when someone shared their story about being a researcher with mental health problems. She spoke to a colleague about this and they said something very simple “I still want to work with you.” If our colleagues begin to have the courage to share their challenges, we have to have the compassion and insight to help them see how valued they are.
My presentation described some of the different ways that Schools in Edinburgh are working on this key topic. My thanks to all the colleagues who shared their ideas. My slides are below:
I’m delighted that after the event I sat down with the RSC to consider what they could do and we’ve got some ideas which we’ll develop in the coming weeks. If you were at the event and want to add anything that will help us, please get in touch with myself or Pip Matthews. And if you weren’t at the event but can highlight resources, ideas or just voice your support please let us know. I’ll post more here once we’ve decided where we can have the most impact in the short term whilst we consider our longer term goals.
As the groups were discussing the problems and solutions I heard a wonderful message from someone in one of the groups.
There should be space for every kind of scientist.
I can’t put it better than that. There SHOULD be. Let’s all commit to making that space.
(This blog has only scratched the surface of the topics we covered during the event so more will follow).
* A small disclaimer: I wrote the IOP guide as a consultant, so our work at Edinburgh has been heavily influenced by it.