What to do to improve postgraduate mental health

It is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, and next week is Mental Health Awareness Week in the United Kingdom. And awareness is certainly increasing. Already this year, reports, surveys and studies have documented psychological experiences experienced by the aged, young, school children, men, women, soldiers, immigrants and refugees, football players, dancers, actors, social-media users, musicians and elite athletes. conflicts are exposed. Immediately after the Olympic Games.

As is often cited, one in four people have a mental-health condition. And the rates of depression and anxiety reported by postgraduate students are unacceptably high. This week, Nature is working to raise awareness of how mental illness can affect researchers: In the careers and comments sections of this issue, many scientists share their experiences with honesty and admirable courage.

Awareness in itself is clearly not enough. John Lennon wrote that life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. Well, life with mental illness can feel like something when good people are busy raising awareness. So, how do we make sure that those affected actually feel heard, supported and better?

Nature is trying to play a small part. Last month, we received a shocking response to a career item from readers about alarmingly high rates of mental-health concerns reported by postgraduates. We invited people to tell us their stories, which we collected through a confidential online form.

Our editors hoped to find some examples of success we could share. Yet, almost without exception, the more than 300 stories we found were from people who wanted support, but were receiving little, if any, support. (Of course, those who received support may be less likely to tell their story.) We published the stories of five respondents last week, with their permission (Nature 557, 129–131; 2018).

Most of the respondents were postgraduate students and postdocs, but many established scientists also wrote that mental-health problems are not limited to young people. We would like to thank everyone who responded so openly: this was heartening to read, and will help drive our future coverage of these issues.

As many struggling with their mental health eventually realize, it rarely helps to remain silent. Reach out to someone and you’ll probably be surprised at how easily they accept what you’re going through. Maybe they are too.

One problem is that, according to a report by RAND Europe last year, “the evidence around the effectiveness of interventions to support researchers’ mental health is particularly thin. Few interventions have been described in the literature and they include: rated less than” (see go.nature.com/2juanaw).

Apart from raising awareness, some efforts are already underway to help the postgraduates. In March, the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced that it would commit a total of £1.5 million (US$2 million) to improve mental health at 17 universities. Many schemes will attempt to better train and equip PhD supervisors to advise their students. It’s much needed: A dysfunctional supervisor-student relationship was a common complaint of many who wrote to us.

Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India has set up an independent, confidential student-support center so that students can come directly to professional psychologists to seek immediate help.

Meanwhile, the Francis Crick Institute in London has more than 20 registered mental-health first aiders who are trained to recognize mental-health issues, provide initial support and guide people to professional services where appropriate. We do. These and other examples of good practice and sources of support are compiled into a dedicated page on our website (see go.nature.com/2i9a6yx). We hope they inspire more.

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