The RAND report estimates that the cost of poor mental health to the UK higher education sector could be £5 million a year†, but there is currently very little evidence on what interventions are successful in reducing its impact. In a collaborative event with the Institute of Physics, Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, Royal Society of Biology and the Wellcome Trust, we brought together 50 people from across the scientific research community to discuss the factors contributing to poor mental health in science, and explore how the learned societies can work together to tackle this issue.
Putting the stats into perspective
Dr Susan Guthrie, research leader at RAND, began the session with a summary of their 2017 report, setting the scene with those sobering statistics. This was followed by a personal perspective on dealing with mental health issues from Dr Joanna Waldie, postdoctoral research fellow in semiconductor physics at the University of Cambridge. Joanna’s brave and inspirational talk shed light on the day-to-day realities for those suffering from mental illness, and put the statistics into perspective.
Dr Sara Shinton, head of researcher development at the University of Edinburgh spoke about practical steps to improving resilience and wellbeing from an institutional perspective, touching on some of the practices the university has put in place to support its staff and students. You can find their guides for postdoctoral researchers on their website.
In the afternoon, delegates were asked to discuss what they feel are the key problems that contribute to poor mental health in academia, and explore what the learned societies could do to tackle some of these issues. The refreshingly open and honest conversations pulled out themes such as tackling isolation and incentivising teamwork; developing new metrics for measuring a researcher’s success; and redefining or normalising failure.
Encouraging change from the top down
The discussions called for the societies to build more support networks for researchers and include mental health training in our mentoring programmes. In our lobbying activities, the community wants to see us push back against the expectation for researchers to travel extensively for collaborations and change their institution regularly, tackle the issue of short-term contracts for early career researchers and improve the metrics used to measure the success of departments, research groups and individual researchers.
“I found it incredibly useful,” said Dr Rosalyn Falconer, postdoctoral researcher in inorganic chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. “It was a very thought provoking and positive day, giving constructive input into trying to tackle some of the underlying problems facing researchers in academia.
“I think it's vital that learned societies get involved in ensuring the mental health of researchers is looked after both in order to make science and research in academia sustainable for the future and to encourage a more inclusive environment for people contributing to scientific research. Change needs to come from the researchers, the universities, professional bodies and it needs to be encouraged from the top down.”
Progress made but the focus needs to shift
“I think one thing that strikes me straight away is how far we've come, that the learned societies have come together to discuss something like mental health,” said Sara Shinton. “It shows you how important it is and that it transcends all the disciplinary boundaries.
“I think we should pause and recognise, as an academic community, the fact that we're now all comfortable talking about this and are coming together to try and deal with it, is a really important milestone.
“This is an area I've been interested in for quite a few years but I've never failed to be moved by individuals speaking honestly about their mental health. And it reminds me, when I listen to the stories that people tell, that we all have an incredibly powerful role to play in supporting each other's mental health.
“Another thing that's clear is that this a very complex problem and there are going to have to be multiple solutions all happening at the same time. Up to this point, a lot of the focus has been on the individuals, and I think what came out of this meeting is that that is misplaced. The focus should be on looking at the system that we all operate in and considering whether or not there are changes to the system that are needed.”
Many thanks to all those that attended and shared their views. The workshop is the start of a collaborative programme between the learned societies to tackle mental health problems in research, and we will be working closely with our allies at the Institute of Physics, Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, Royal Society of Biology and the Wellcome Trust, to put some of the event’s recommendations into action.