Researcher Wellbeing and Mental Health First Aid

Alex Pavey is a training officer in the Researcher Development Programme team, where he leads on researcher wellbeing. In this post to mark University Mental Health Day 2020, he discusses his experience of Mental Health First Aid training and the Doctoral College’s plans to support the mental health of postgraduate and early-career researchers.

Research, whether at doctoral level or beyond, is inherently hard; to undertake original research is, by definition, to do work that has never been done before, with all the risk and uncertainty that this entails. But it is increasingly being recognised that some researchers confront other challenges that are neither necessary nor inevitable. Recent research from the Wellcome Trust and Vitae has emphasised the importance of fostering positive and health research cultures, and the right support – from supervisors, line managers, peers, and the University as a whole – can help us overcome some of these challenges, or avoid them entirely.

An increasing number of institutions have begun offering Mental Health First Aid training to staff who support researchers. The Francis Crick Institute in London, for example, has more than 40 Mental Health First Aiders amongst its staff, including research group leaders (Nature, 2018).

Just before Christmas last year, I was proud to be one of the instructors training the University’s first cohort of Mental Health First Aiders, alongside colleagues from the Centre for Wellbeing. Since then, we’ve begun providing training through the Doctoral College specifically focusing on staff who support postgraduate and early-career researchers. As of today, 10 members of the Doctoral College team have been trained in Mental Health First Aid. That number will continue to rise in the coming months, both within the Doctoral College and across our academic faculties.

Mental Health First Aiders are not qualified counsellors or therapists, and they cannot take the place of well-resourced professional support from the NHS or our own Centre for Wellbeing. They are trained to listen, to provide reassurance to someone in distress, and to signpost them to professional support where appropriate. Just as importantly, they are also given the information and skills to look after their own mental health, promote positive wellbeing, and reduce the stigma associated with mental ill health.

Mental Health First Aid is grounded in the principle that there is no health without mental health; that mental health is a spectrum, and that we will all find ourselves at different points on that spectrum throughout our lives. There are all kinds of things we can do to support our own wellbeing: our fortnightly Researcher Café drop-in sessions in the Doctoral College, for example, are a great opportunity to take a break from the lab or the office and chat with other researchers from across the University over coffee and biscuits. The recently launched Wellbeing Thesis website, developed by the University of Derby, King’s College London, and Student Minds, is a fantastic resource for postgraduate researchers.

Important as it is for us to feel empowered to manage our own stress levels and take responsibility for our own wellbeing, it is equally essential that the right support structures are place around us, and that there are opportunities to provide feedback and make changes to those structures. Our plans to implement Mental Health First Aid are just one part of an ongoing focus on supporting researcher wellbeing across the University, and in the coming year and beyond we’ll be working closely with PGR and ECR rep committees, the Students’ Union, academic staff, and the Centre for Wellbeing to develop other activities and initiatives. Central to that will be gathering feedback from postgraduate and early-career researchers, to ensure that your experiences and ideas help shape the University’s research culture.