The Importance of Encouraging Research Students to Prioritize Their Mental Health

Research is one of the most important roles the academic and scientific community plays in society. It helps us to understand more about the world and our place in it. For students, graduate research programs are the best place to begin their careers and also make an impact in their field.  

Yet, there’s no denying the lifestyle of a research student can be a significant source of stress. When left unchecked, this can have a disastrous impact on their overall wellbeing and the state of their contributions.

There are some compelling reasons why you need to encourage research students under your care to prioritize their mental health. We’re going to take a look at a few of the key elements. 

Their High-Risk Status

Among the key reasons you need to commit to encouraging mental wellness is your research students can be considered a high-risk group. There can be a variety of factors contributing to the pressure on their psychological state. To the extent that, 33% of students experience depression so severe it becomes difficult for them to function. Between heavy workloads, peer pressure, and financial worries, research students can experience anxiety before college begins and become exacerbated throughout their program.  

Part of what makes this such a difficult issue to address is the early signs of aspects like depression can go undetected. Some symptoms can look similar to the common hallmarks of a research student’s lifestyle. For instance, a certain amount of fatigue is not uncommon in students as a result of hard work and minor sleep deprivation. But people who are developing symptoms of depression may exhibit similar issues surrounding sleep problems. It is vital for both you and your students to be able to recognize the difference between common or chronic fatigue and a descent toward a serious mental health issue.    

This is where mental health education can be useful to research students. At the outset of any research program, it’s worth providing them with literature and guidance on how to spot aspects of mental unwellness in themselves. Discuss what puts them at risk and even how to talk about their challenges. It’s also important to keep an open dialogue between you and your researchers throughout your time together so you can discuss these psychological concerns and address them early. 

The Impact on Results

When research students are living with extended periods of poor mental wellness, this can hurt the efficacy of their research. The level of impact can largely depend on the condition, symptoms, and severity of their experiences. But it remains the case that disrupted mental health can reduce productivity and even have detrimental financial results on the project and university.

This is among the reasons there is increasing attention being paid toward researcher mental health. Research projects already have to deal with increasingly tight budgetary restrictions and external pressure to perform. When there is a trend of poor student mental wellbeing frequently causing absenteeism, delays, and even incidents of dropout, this can have sustained and wide-reaching consequences. Indeed, the additional pressure from this may be passed onto other students, continuing to put them at greater risk. 

From the students’ perspective, there is also the chance poor mental health can inhibit progress on their Ph.D. If they’re unable to stay on their expected timetable or find they’re producing poor results in their work, this can cause an additional hit to their self-esteem. So, it’s clear that allowing mental unwellness to thrive among researchers has various snowball effects. 

Reducing this impact can come down to your vigilance as a research leader. You must gain a full understanding of the wide range of mental health conditions prevalent among graduate students. This should begin with stress-related challenges like burnout and anxiety disorders. But you should also be aware of the potential for substance abuse, too. Get to know the symptoms so you can raise issues and intervene where necessary.

An Achievement Mentality

It’s worth considering there are aspects of the research culture that prevents students themselves from recognizing and acting on mental unwellness. This is often driven by an achievement mentality in post-grad learners. Students are so focused on the practices of their work and moving on to the next stage of their career that they fail to give themselves enough space for mindfulness, recreation, and even sleep.

There are certainly some cultural factors to blame in this regard. We live in a society with a rather toxic relationship to achievement in both education and work. Symptoms of burnout, fatigue, and even depression are often lauded as necessary bioproducts of hard work and commitment. It’s also not unusual to celebrate those who sacrifice their work-life balance in the name of progress.

It should be no wonder that research students don’t always recognize issues and may be reluctant to ask for help for fear of seeming a weak link. Part of your duty of care as a research leader is to communicate the importance of mental health and point students toward the resources available. This could be connecting them with organizations to help them handle specific mental challenges. It could also just involve highlighting practical tools to reduce their exposure to stress. You can’t force your students to seek help. But you can give them the knowledge to help themselves. 

Conclusion

Student researchers are a vital part of any academic institution. However, their ability to make valuable contributions and progress in their careers can be threatened by mental health challenges. Their lifestyle and activities can see them as high-risk targets for some conditions. While their poor mental health can negatively impact research outcomes. It’s certainly the case that toxic cultural elements can exacerbate the situation. As a dedicated research lead, what measures are you taking to protect your students, and is there anything more you can be doing?

Indiana Lee
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