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What do we know about mental health in the research environment?

We caught up with Catie Lichten and Sue Guthrie from RAND Europe - who recently reviewed what we know about mental health in the research community. They shared some of the key findings

So, first thing’s first - what motivated you to carry out this study?

Catie: I think from our own experiences we've seen how the research environment and culture can be quite challenging, and we were commissioned to do the study by the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society. I’ve had a couple of friends who have experienced mental illness during their PhD or post-doc and I think it’s really important that we start to find out more.

Sue: It felt like an important gap to address. Society is talking more about mental health in general, so why not raise the profile of this issue among the research community?

And what is it about the life of a researcher that might impact a person’s mental health?

Catie: It certainly depends on what stage you're at, but if you're a PhD student or a post-doc, an important factor is the relationship you have with your supervisor – so if that’s difficult it can really pose challenges and cause people to feel quite isolated. There can also be challenges with poor supervision – not necessarily because of any ill intent, but simply because supervisors don't always have training in how to manage people.

For junior researchers, there’s also a huge amount of uncertainty about future job prospects, which can lead to a very competitive, stressful environment. People are working on short-term contracts and aren't really sure what their next step is going to be – and alongside this, they often have a really high workload which can exacerbate the stress.

But I think there are also positive aspects. One thing that came out of our review is that idea that work can be protective for mental health – it gives people a structure and a purpose, and research in particular can be really rewarding, which brings a lot of satisfaction.

How did you carry out the research?

Catie: The overall idea was to find out what is currently known about this topic and identify what the gaps are for further research. So, the approach we took was to ask questions such as ‘what is currently known about researchers’ mental health and wellbeing’ and ‘what types of interventions have been used to support this’.

Sue: Although there have been very specific studies done around this issue, there’s never been a comprehensive summary of all the evidence in one place before. Hopefully this work will be useful to help people move forward. 

And what were some of your key findings?

Catie: I think one of the most interesting things we found – which is perhaps not surprising – is that there’s actually very little known about the prevalence of mental illness in this population.

The top-level statistic – and I should stress this is based on a survey rather than a clinical assessment – suggests that more than a third of academic staff are at risk of developing a common mental health condition, like depression or anxiety.

We had a look at some of the factors that contribute to this, which are consistent with what you might see in the average workplace; things like work-life balance, poor management, lack of control. But it’s the combination of the way they come together in a research setting that’s quite unique and challenging.

Were there any new findings that you found particularly surprising?

Sue: The high level of bullying is something that I found surprising - nearly half of staff at UK universities have been subject to bullying at work. I don't think that's really what you think about when you think of a university; it seems like a calm, idyllic place from the outside.

I think I was also shocked by the fact that the levels of stress within the research community are on a par with what you see in other, seemingly more ‘high-stress’ professions.

So far we have been discussing findings from your literature review about issues that affect researchers across the UK and elsewhere. Now that you’ve gathered all this evidence, what are the next steps?

Sue: There are a number of initiatives underway across the UK to address these issues, which is a good step. We’ve been talking with the staff counselling service at the University of Cambridge about what they can do to support the post-doc population in particular, because it seems that postdocs face unique challenges with job insecurity etc. However, there’s less evidence from our reviews about this particular group.

So, if we can secure the funding, we would like to introduce an intervention, as well as a survey of the post-doc population at Cambridge to get a baseline measurement of what the mental health challenges are - and how prevalent they are - in that group.

Catie: The intervention would be something that the counselling service could deliver online; it would teach people techniques to manage their stress, guided by a member of the counseling service. It’s something everyone could access at a time that suits them and also offers a level of anonymity. If this works, hopefully it could be rolled out across other universities.

Finally, in an ideal world, what changes would you like to see when it comes to researchers and mental health?

Sue: So, I think there's a few. A good first step would be to raise more awareness that this is an issue in the research community. I recently spoke about the study to someone who runs his own lab and he didn’t realise it was a concern. Just having that awareness out there could help people in his position be more effective in their management approach and as supportive as possible. We could achieve this with just a bit of training.

It would also be great to have a more open environment in which to share common struggles. As a researcher, you have to deal with rejection and a very competitive environment along the way, but by sharing experiences it makes it much easier to have a dialogue. Once it’s brought up in conversation, so many people come forward with their own experiences. 

Last updated: 24 June 2019

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