A group of PhD students from the National Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases (NCARD) has developed a new mental health strategy designed to provide greater wellbeing support to PhD students.
The strategy includes mental health training for NCARD staff, mental health first aid training for NCARD supervisors, and annual wellness reviews for PhD students.
NCARD PhD student Nicola Principe, who helped design the strategy, said it was developed in response to demand from research staff and students.
“We had this idea from our Kindness in Science initiative where we ran a series of workshops for research staff and students on multiple topics, including mental health and wellbeing,” she said.
“From these workshops, we recognised that there is a huge stigma around mental health in academia, even though working in academia (whether as staff or student) can greatly impact individuals’ wellbeing due to high demands, with little reward.”
Working with the NCARD program manager Dr Tanya Ward, the Kindness in Science team – comprising Nicola, together with Jessica Boulter, Lizeth Orozco Morales and Caitlin Tilsed – began trialling a new mental health strategy in July.
A major component of the strategy is the annual NCARD PhD student wellness reviews.
Each wellness review is held with a nominated mentor (not the student’s supervisor) and encourages the student to reflect on their mental wellbeing, in the context of both work and personal life, and identify areas for improvement or support.
Everything discussed remains confidential, with topics including work-life balance, supervisor support, career plans, general health, relationships and hobbies.
After the review, the student creates a plan to address any concerns raised during the meeting.
To date, four PhD students have taken part in wellness reviews.
Lizeth Orozco Morales completed her review two months ago and found it to be a positive experience.
“I felt that I was talking to a good old friend, plus having the insight and past experiences of my ‘wellness mentor’ definitely show that you’re not the only one that has gone through the complicated road of completing a PhD,” she said.
“I now feel that I can come back to my wellness mentor and talk to them about how things are going. So, in a way, you get a pair of ears that are willing to listen to you while knowing everything that’s going on can be confidential if you want it to be.
“It’s definitely nice to know that someone else cares about what you say and how you feel.”
Dr Kofi Stevens, a postdoctoral researcher, is one of the mentors performing wellness reviews.
“Having gone through a PhD in recent years and having experienced difficulties with my mental health along the way, I was excited to be part of this program,” he said.
“The format of this program is something myself, and others in my cohort, would have benefited from and it’s great to see these initiatives taking place.
“By providing an opportunity for mental health reviews, it helps capture individuals who under normal circumstances may not be willing or able to have these discussions.
“At the core of the review are questions and discussions that many people may struggle to have with anyone in their social circle.
“Providing a formal yet casual situation in which the students can talk with an individual who understands the specific difficulties of doing a PhD is a great first step for getting people on a path to better mental wellbeing.”
Fellow mentor Dr Tracy Hoang, a postdoctoral research scientist, also sees the value in wellness reviews.
“As a mentor, the wellness review has given me the opportunity to build my skills as a mental health first aider. This experience has given me the confidence I need to provide quality support to our students and others team members,” she said.
“The best thing about the wellness review is that it has created a safe space for students and mentors to discuss strategies to maintain mental wellbeing, how to cope with daily stresses and prevent burn-out.”
NCARD Program Manager Tanya Ward helped implement the strategy, and has also been acting as a mentor.
“I was honoured to be chosen as a wellness mentor and I was eager to see how my mentee steered the conversation and to hear about their experiences and needs,” she said.
“Despite fears expressed by others, the wellness review was not a mental health crisis meeting. It was a welcome opportunity to speak to the student about their experiences, hopes and needs beyond a narrow focus on scientific skills acquisition and research output.
“As a university, we have responsibilities to our students that go beyond their research training. We are helping to prepare them for a successful professional future and this requires us to assist them in managing the challenges they face.
“It was wonderful to see that the mentee I met with had been given strong support by their supervisors and peers, and showed resilience, despite experiencing the obvious stresses associated with postgraduate study.
“I will look forward to future wellness reviews.”
Jessica, Lizeth, Caitlin and Nicola believe the mental health strategy has complemented existing academic support, which is largely focused on PhD progression.
“The open conversation on mental health literacy at one of our recent lab meetings was well received by all research staff and students,” Jessica said. “Additionally, our research staff and students have been stepping up to take on mental health first aid training.
“We will hopefully see the strategy have continued success, and we hope it could be implemented through the Graduate Research School in the near future.”
The NCARD Mental Health Strategy for PhD students was developed by Jessica Boulter, Lizeth Orozco Morales, Caitlin Tilsed and Nicola Principe.
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If you know a PhD student who would like to learn techniques for managing stress and/or difficult relationships, emotions and uncertainties that often accompany HDR candidature, you can ask them to email email@example.com. All emails will be treated confidentially.
This article was originally posted on UWA Staff News.