The mental health of postgraduate students is starting to receive the attention it needs. While undergraduate wellbeing is often in the limelight, postgrads are six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the general population, according to global research into 2,279 mostly PhD candidates. But universities are ramping up support that can make students more resilient, while mental wellbeing is also associated with superior productivity.

Coronavirus has been the catalyst. More than 50% of students think their mental health has suffered since the pandemic struck, according to a survey from the National Union of Students. The switch to remote teaching has made many experience anxiety and depression. Research students face some unique challenges, given that a PhD has always been a potentially isolating experience that relies on a good relationship with a research supervisor.

Even among taught students, returning to study can be a challenge after a long spell in the workforce. Postgrads should be aware of the wealth of support on offer, though. “Researchers can fall through a gap between student and staff mental health support,” says Katie Wheat, head of engagement and policy at Vitae, a non-profit that trains researchers. “Provision can target the larger undergraduate population.”

The pandemic is amplifying existing stressors and creating fresh challenges for postgrads, including switching to virtual research projects, or seeking funding extensions if research must be postponed. Vitae and the Student Mental Health Research Network surveyed researchers during lockdown and found half were stressed about their work, two thirds worried about their future plans and 70% fretted over finances.

Meanwhile, Georgie Hopkins speaks for many postgrads when she relays feeling sometimes isolated studying for her MBA online at Exeter’s Business School: “There are times when it’s just you, your desk and your camera but you could really do with some personal interaction with other students.” However, she adds the support of her peer group has been strong, with virtual meetups on Zoom common.

Indeed, Exeter has its own welfare adviser and postgrads are also offered appointments with qualified mental health practitioners, group support sessions and a series of workshops on how to take charge of their own mental health.

At City, University of London, postgrads have access to a counselling team that provides a safe place for students to speak and seek therapy. An early intervention can prevent the situation from worsening. “Universities need to allow protected time for academic staff to offer pastoral support for students,” says Midge Seymour-Roots, head of student counselling and mental health services at City.

Inmaculada Adarves-Yorno, senior lecturer in leadership studies at Exeter, runs mindfulness sessions and advises that students practice breathing exercises and improve nutrition as well as sleep. “The mind is the biggest resource for a PhD candidate,” she says.



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