European institutes report that their services are under strain and that they have issues with graduate-student engagement.
A report from Vitae, a non-profit science-career advocacy organization in Cambridge, UK, found that while UK universities are seriously considering the mental health of PhD researchers, gaps and shortcomings in the graduate-programme system continue to keep many students from getting help.
The report, which was co-produced by the University of Ghent in Belgium and the Brighton, UK-based Institute for Employment Studies, examined 10 institutions of various sizes across England, Scotland and Wales. All recognised a legal and moral duty to provide mental-health support to students, says Janet Metcalfe, head of Vitae. Although none of the institutions had a formal plan specifically geared towards graduate-level researchers, two had started developing such plans, a sign of a growing commitment to mental-health issues at UK universities. “There’s a momentum going on in the UK,” she says.
Though the report covers 10 institutions, Metcalfe notes that 87 places of higher education vied to be included, a sign of widespread interest in the issue. Surveys and focus groups underscored one common problem: PhD students often feel separated from the rest of the university, making them less likely to take advantage of the mental-health services and programmes offered to undergraduates. Universities could do more to make clear that services are available for everyone, Metcalfe says, adding:”PhD researchers perceive that mental-health campaigns aren’t directed at them, so they don’t listen.”
The report also found that university counselling services are under strain, forcing many students to endure long waits to be seen. At one university that offered limited counselling sessions, a PhD researcher said that they decided not to seek help for mental-health problems “in case my mental health is worse later and I need the sessions more.”
Metcalfe hopes that the report will help inspire more research into the mental-health needs of everyone at universities. She’d especially like to investigate postdoctoral researchers, a group that she calls underserved and says faces particular challenges. She notes that postdocs are caught between the worlds of students and academics, and t may not feel like they truly belong. “I’m sure the impostor syndrome is common at the postdoctoral level,” she says.
Universities could give students, PhD students and postdoctoral researchers a big boost by providing more mental-health services and training to staff and faculty, Metcalfe says. “As a sector, universities are well behind other sectors in thinking about the mental health and well being of their staff,” she says. “If we’re going to make a difference, it has to come from he top and come all the way through the institution, so that staff and students alike know that their mental health and well being is important.”
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.