Mental health in academia is topic of the week at a sold-out UK meeting

Illustration of a masked face with lines of thoughts

An upcoming conference aims to shine a spotlight on the struggles of early-career researchers and other academics, a population that has been reporting increasing levels of emotional distress, uncertainty and pressure. The International Conference on the Mental Health & Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers — the first of its kind and organized by the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) — runs on 16–17 May in Brighton, UK.

More than 180 scientists, mental-health professionals, university administrators and students from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and five continental European countries will attend the now-sold-out conference, which is supported by Nature Research in partnership with two UK institutions: the University of Sussex in Brighton and the University of Portsmouth. (Nature Research is part of Springer Nature, which publishes NatureNature’s Careers team is editorially independent of the journal’s publisher.)

The growing conversation about mental health on university campuses has helped to raise awareness of the issue, but it has also underscored gaps in the research and a lack of consensus about how to respond, says Owen Gower, director of the UKCGE, an education-advocacy group in Lichfield.

The meeting was planned to coincide with UK Mental Health Awareness Week on 13–19 May, hosted by the Mental Health Foundation in London.

A clear need

After it was announced last November, the conference quickly sold out, with 108 registrants, 63 presenters and 12 invited speakers — but those who want to be placed on a cancellation standby list can e-mail [email protected] It is also possible to follow the conference and join discussions on Twitter using the hashtag #MHWBrighton.

Among its other goals, Gower says, the conference should help point to future research directions and assess the successes and shortcomings of ongoing attempts to support researchers’ well-being. “We wanted to gather together all of the momentum that’s happening, and share best practices to develop a sense of collective action,” he says.

Multiple factors seem to be contributing to the apparent increase in mental-health issues among graduate and postgraduate researchers, says scheduled speaker Gareth Hughes, a psychotherapist and research lead for student well-being at the University of Derby, UK. “There’s a very big question mark around the culture and what it expects of them,” he says. “A lot of academics who came through this route see suffering as a badge of honour. There’s a belief that doing a PhD should make you ill, if you’re doing it properly. It’s bizarre.”

In reality, Hughes says, stressors such as overwork, competition and uncertain job prospects can ruin careers before they have a chance to really start. “We’ve lost a lot of researchers who were good academically but just couldn’t survive the toxicity,” says Hughes. The students and researchers who remain often see their work quality decline as threats to mental health mount. “When anxiety levels go up, people become less creative,” he says. “They’re less willing to take risks, and we don’t get those leaps forward that we might otherwise have.”

The conference caught the attention of Anthony Stepniak, a PhD student and research student officer at the University of Northampton, UK. “My plan is to go there and listen to some of the key ideas around wellness and well-being,” he says. “I’m very interested in creating a research community that’s supportive of one another.”