Considering the mental health of researchers

By Darragh McCashin
Tuesday, 29th October 2019
Filed under: ESRBlog

Following on from hosting the 2019 MCAA General Assembly parallel session on the Mental Health of Researchers (MHR) last February, I had the honour to attend the first international conference on exclusively this topic. Representing the MHR taskforce within Policy Working Group of the MCAA, this inaugural conference was a key opportunity to learn of best practice and the latest research.

The psychological difficulties faced by postgraduate and early stage researchers have been well documented in both the media and in the research literature. Indeed, the MCAA identified mental health as a key area to address in a recent statement on the Future of European Research Funding. Policy-makers across academic hierarchies are balancing their duty of care, limited resources, ethical challenges and innovative thinking to tackle the growing psychological difficulties reported by postgraduates. This conference presented various approaches in UK universities, including evidence-based interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based practices. There was also strong representation from Ireland, Australia, South Africa, and Belgium.

Whilst I attended a range of sessions, there were two key takeaways for me. The first was from Professor Katia Levecque’s lecture – unpacking the highly impactful findings from their seminal study (n = 3659) where it was found that 32% of PhD students are at risk of having or developing a common mental health problem. However, Levecque et al firmly pointed out that the field has often conflated poorly understood concepts such as well-being and job satisfaction, and their relationship to dropping out or remaining. Until we can theoretically guide our development of these concepts, it is important for policy-makers to be cautious in their use of language, choice of metrics, and thus decision-making. The relationship between these variables is not clear, and we must be vigilant in questioning the assumptions implicit in how we discuss their associations with MHR.

The second key takeaway came from keynote speaker Professor Barbara Dooley, who closed the conference. Dooley reminded attendees that while it is clear that significant psychological challenges exist, we should be mindful of the comparators used within datasets underpinning our understanding of risk factors. Moreover, academia is not the only area of society facing these challenges. Dooley outlined the many overarching principles for positive mental health that are applicable to individuals and institutions.

Overall, the clear points to consider for policy-makers are as follows:

  • There is no one size fits all approach for tackling psychological difficulties given the variability in understanding, stigma and leadership across universities globally.
  • Conceptually and theoretically, the field remains unclear as to how one validly and reliably situates job satisfaction, well-being and mental health outcomes within an effective policy framework.
  • The specific factors in academia that relate to risks of developing psychological difficulties necessitate tailored responses.

******************************************************************

This blog was written by Darragh McCashin

Darragh is an MSCA Fellow at University College Dublin. He is also the Taskforce Leader for Mental health of researchers – MCAA Policy Working Group

To read more about Darraghs research please click here.

Our Network Partners


  • University College Dublin

  • Denmark Technical University

  • Technical University Vienna

  • Medical University Vienna

  • Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families

  • University of Glasgow

  • Region H Psychiatry

  • Telefonica Alpha