Acknowledge, Facilitate, Intervene

rsc-iop-researcher-mental-health-event-for-web

A slide from my talk at the learned society conference on researcher mental health

My final blog post of mental health awareness week is a showcase of some of the work being done at The University of Edinburgh to support researchers, particularly those who are struggling with mental health problems. One of the great joys of working here is having great colleagues so I’m pleased to have the chance to share some of their work. However, there’s a tiny cautionary note. I’m not claiming that Edinburgh is the kindest university – I don’t think any institution could make that claim (although now I think about it I’d be a lot more interested in a KEF if the K stood for kindness…).

I know from my personal experiences working in four UK universities (and a much greater experience as a consultant for a few dozen), that every university is probably the most supportive, more understanding and simultaneously the most callous and damaging. The experiences of researchers are very influenced by the individuals around them, especially their supervisors and bosses, so please don’t read into this a sense that we’ve cracked it here. It’s a work in progress and it always will be, but here are some of our efforts.

This post will feature three school case studies from Chemistry, Biology and Physics.  (As the final case study is from our Chaplaincy, I was going to describe them as the holy trinity of science, but apparently that’s Reason, Observation and Experience!) Each school has taken a different approach, prompted by different issues, but together they provide some great starting points, If you are reading this for inspiration about how to develop some initiatives in your own academic community. (BTW if you’re reading this in England or Wales, we call our academic department up here “schools”)

Chemunity launched in March and is a staff/student collaborative project involving undergraduate and postgraduate research students. One of their aims is to promote good mental health and wellbeing among all students. In time this will lead to the creation of an online collection of desirable resources, as defined and designed by students. As mentioned earlier this week, the School of Chemistry here has an enviable communal space which will be used to host events (e.g. board game evenings) that encourage discussion and build the sense of academic community.

The Chemunity Facebook page explains:

As the title suggests, we aim to bring the collective School of Chemistry community together for an evening of entertainment (did someone say board games?), celebrating the launch of our website & a whole host of special guests.

*What’s our mission I hear you ask?*

It’s actually quite simple. We are absolutely passionate about improving the quality of academic support for both UG & PG students, opening up more conversations about our mental/health wellbeing & bridging the gap between students & lecturers.

SolidariTEA is a new initiative being piloted in our School of Biological Sciences and led by Dr Louise Horsfall. This informal, fortnightly coffee/tea session for PhD students, starts with a student or staff member opening  with a very short story about when they may have encountered and overcome a difficulty in their research or career.

SolidariTEA_Poster[1]

Leading on from this,  people can bring any non-technical queries to discuss but the focus should be on mental health and wellbeing. Like Chemunity it’s funded through our Student Partnership Agreement Grants. SolidariTEA is new but the School plans to develop more resources on supporting students with mental health problems for supervisors whilst recognising that the whole school community needs to be part of this as students will often approach other staff, notably technicians when things start to get too much for them.

The final example from the School Of Physics and Astronomy demonstrates how straightforward it is to embed wellbeing into the doctoral process. The first year pastoral meeting happens about 4 months in the PhD, when the students are likely to have established a working relationship with their supervisor and to have tuned in sufficiently to the PhD for them to be aware of potential problems. It also establishes early that the School is interested in their wellbeing and makes clear how future problems can be raised and are likely to be tackled.

Pastoral Physics
A screenshot from the SOPA wiki

The School’s wiki also makes it clear that needing pastoral support is NORMAL and EXPECTED, trying to dispel any sense that feeling overwhelmed is a sign of failure. It clearly points students to sources of help and talks about interruptions as part of the support available, minimising stigma.

Picture2
Picture3 School of Physics and Astronomy wiki

Our final little gem is our Chaplaincy . It offers support in many forms – there’s a wellbeing and mindfulness programme, a listening service and has a wonderful calming atmosphere even though it sits in the heart of our Central campus. Staff and students are welcome at all times and it proudly proclaims itself to be – a place of all faiths and none.

We’re a large university so I’m sure this only scratches the surface of wellbeing support here. If you are from The University of Edinburgh and have more examples, I’d love to share them here. If you are from elsewhere I hope it gives you to confidence to look for similar initiatives in your own institution. At the Universities Scotland Researcher Mental Health event on June 14th there will be many more examples from our colleagues in other Scottish institutions – book your place here.  If you can’t find anything, please take these ideas – as someone summed up at the event last week, science should have space for everyone.

Particular thanks to Caroline Proctor, Louise Horsfall, Chris Mowat and Will Hossack for their help and suggestions, and to our Chaplaincy for being a sanctuary on campus.

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