News and Views

Mental health and wellbeing in the history and heritage PhD community – a new series of guest blogs

An NHS study conducted in 2014 estimates that 1 person in 6 in the UK experienced a mental health problem that year. Among PhD students that is estimated to be 1 in 3. Alongside these statistics, a steady stream of news articles and research studies since at least 2014 have told us that PhD students are facing a mental health “crisis”, while in March 2018 HEFCE announced that funding totalling £1.5million had been awarded to 17 universities in England, to improve support for the mental wellbeing of postgraduate research students as a distinct HE community. In short, mental health in PhD students is a topical issue in current higher education practice.

This short series of three posts has been scheduled over three consecutive weeks, to complement this year’s History UK plenary, ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing’, and arises from a paper I gave at the Heritage Dot conference, University of Lincoln, between 3 and 4 June 2019. I would like to thank Jamie Wood for inviting me to write up my paper for History UK; I can think of no better time to commit my thoughts to the public domain.

My name is Leah Warriner-Wood. I am a PhD student and Associate Lecturer in the School of History and Heritage at the University of Lincoln. My thesis will characterise the use of historic tapestries in 18th century country house interiors. I also have generalised anxiety and panic disorder, and have had since my teens. It might seem an odd decision to put this ‘out there’ – publicly, indelibly (a subject that I’ll return to in a later post) – but these conditions are a working feature of my life as a student and academic, and I’m no longer ashamed (as I was when first diagnosed nearly twenty-five years ago) to speak their names. I feel strongly about challenging the stigma around ‘invisible’ mental health disabilities and am privileged to be in a situation that affords me a platform to do so.

Social media plays a regular part in my working and personal life, and over time I have become interested in how this intersects with my PhD and my mental wellness. What follows is an autoethnographic synthesis of these three areas of interest. As I’m by no means an expert in either the fields of psychiatry or social media, my approach is very much reflective. Drawing on my personal experiences of my particular spectrum of symptoms (alongside secondary literature) allows me to shed a little light on dynamics that can be difficult, I think, to observe if one hasn’t experienced them first-hand. Of course, a limitation of this approach is that my experiences may not be representative of others’ experiences, so I’d like to make it clear that I don’t intend to speak for others, or to offer answers. Rather, my aim for this series is to open dialogue.

Why talk about mental health?

‘The high prevalence of mental health problems in PhD students is critical in terms of individual suffering, organizational and societal costs. In the long run, however, it will also impact on research itself.’

Why should we care about the mental wellbeing of PhD students? Aside from being decent human beings who care about our peers, Levecque et al (2017), authors of the quotation above, have pointed to a series of organisational and social reasons for talking about and understanding mental health in emerging academics. I’ll paraphrase these for brevity:

  • Mental health problems hinder the quantity and quality of intellectual development in the academy, which arguably makes the academy a poorer place
  • They have a financial impact on the institutions in which doctoral students and early career researchers operate (particularly where they work in teams), and on wider society, in terms of, for example, healthcare costs and lost productivity
  • If PhD completion rates drop, or graduates choose not to remain in academia, mental health problems could threaten the future viability of the research industry as a whole.

As a reflective piece though, my focus will be on highlighting what Levecque refers to as “individual suffering”. Over these three posts I’ll aim to present dialogue on three questions that I think are key to deepening the academy’s appreciation of mental health and inclusivity in the PhD community: What are the relationships between the PhD, mental health, and social media use? What are some of the challenges to inclusivity for PHD students with a mental illness, and how do social media intersect with this? What are some of the benefits of social media, and what are some of the obstacles that we should be aware of? Crucially, by using my own experiences, I’ll focus on mental health as a lived experience, rather than merely a distant and abstract subject. I’ll end by suggesting how I think the academy might, using social media, move towards greater inclusivity for those with mental health disabilities.

In this first post I’ll touch on some of the research around the first of these questions: What are the relationships between PhD students, their mental health, and social media use?

Who uses social media?

Who are these PhD students using social media? How would we recognise them? The truth is that there is very little research presenting demographics for this particular section of either the social media or academic communities. However, we can borrow statistics from the wider academy to answer these questions.

A 2011 study by Ian Rowlands and colleagues at UCL invited 2,400 academics to take part in a survey about their use of social media. In terms of demographics, the study found that neither age nor gender were statistically sound predictors of social media use. In other words, tweeting or uploading videos to YouTube isn’t only the preserve of stereotypical groups of ‘digital natives’.

Academics in the arts and humanities were most likely to avail themselves of social media technologies, with 79.2% of humanities scholars responding that they used social media as part of their research. The most popular platforms were a catalogue of the most popular ‘household names’ for social networking, blogging, and microblogging, including Facebook, WordPress, and Twitter respectively.

Social media and mental health

What about the relationship(s) between social media and mental (un)wellness? What are they? And are they positive, or harmful? The literature synthesising social media and mental health suggests that the strength of correlations between the two remain unclear and complex. It isn’t my intent to delve into the intricacies of this, but rather to present some select highlights.

While one study published earlier this year found that “Adolescents with diagnosed depression who used social media excessively were more like to be affected by social isolation, altered sleep, and low mood”, in a 2014 literature review of papers on this theme Pantic found that there was a lower correlation between social media and mental illness in University than in high school students in the USA – perhaps suggesting that HE students are less likely to find their mental wellbeing negatively affected by social media use. This is tangentially supported by Naslund, whose 2016 study of peer-to-peer support and social media found that adults “with serious mental illness report benefits from interacting with peers online”.

Finally, researchers working within Microsoft have also published results this year which show that social media can be used to “characterise the onset of depression in individuals”, again suggesting that social media – which can be demonised in the popular media (as seen in the recent leak of A-level maths papers via Twitter) – can also be tools for mental wellbeing.

 

Having established that mental illness is a recognised issue within the PhD community, that researchers are actively using social media in their work, and that these media intersect with and influence users’ mental wellbeing, in next week’s post I’ll expand this by looking at how scholars use social media in the research workflow, and my own experiences (good and bad) of using social media as part of my research journey.

Conference funding for panel on inequality, underrepresentation, and discrimination in the field of U.S. History with secondary school teachers (with BrANCH)

The Association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH) is the leading organisation for scholars of nineteenth-century U.S. history in the UK. In recent years, the association has sought to involve itself in initiatives to address issues surrounding inequality, underrepresentation, and discrimination in the field of U.S. History and is particularly keen to encourage greater racial, gender, and socioeconomic diversity among students studying U.S. History at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

History UK is providing £500 to help strengthen BrANCH’s relationships with institutions and individuals working in secondary education. Four teachers from local secondary schools will be invited to participate in a panel on 12th October at the 2019 Annual BrANCH Conference at the University of Edinburgh.

This panel, which will consist of both secondary school and university teachers of U.S. history, has three main aims.

  1. To share teaching practices, specifically regarding new digital archives and online resources that can be utilised in the classroom. Participants will focus on resources that allow access to non-traditional sources that can be used to develop new curriculum which moves beyond uncritically white- and male-centred histories of the United States.
  2. To discuss issues of diversity and equality among staff and students in the field of U.S. History in the UK. Panellists will share views from their vantage points in different areas of the education system and reflect on why certain racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups are underrepresented in the field of U.S. History beyond GCSE/A-Level.
  3. To explore future steps BrANCH and its individual members can take to address these issues, focussing on long-term collaborative initiatives between secondary school and higher education teachers.

The principal aim is to raise awareness regarding issues of discrimination, underrepresentation, and inequality in our field. This will further facilitate the building of networks between these teachers and BrANCH members, most of whom teach in higher education.

Alys Beverton (Cardiff University and Marketing and Fundraising Officer for BrANCH) said:

“BrANCH has been wanting to strength ties between its members and colleagues working in secondary schools for a while now. With this support from History UK we’re going to be able to actually get some of us together in the same room to have face-to-face conversations about issues relating to equality and diversity in our field, as well as share ideas about new learning materials we can all use to bring the latest resources into our classrooms. We’re really hopeful that this will be the starting point for what will grow into longer-term relationships between BrANCH and secondary school teachers in Edinburgh and perhaps beyond.”

Lucinda Matthews-Jones (co-convenor of History UK) said:

“We’re really pleased, at History UK, to be able to support BrANCH in furthering subject conversations with local school teachers by providing financial support to bring 4 teachers to their conference both as delegates and speakers. As a sector we have a lot to learn from our secondary school counterparts on how history is taught to our students before they come to university. We welcome the opportunity to assist with this collaboration.”

Follow BrANCH on Twitter @Branch19th

For more on projects (and events) funded by History UK, on opportunities to apply for funding, go to our funding page.

Launch of New Funding Scheme for Black and Minority Ethnic History, supported by HUK, EHS and SHS

History UK, the Social History Society and the Economic History Society and are launching a new funding scheme to support Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) history. The scheme has been created in recognition of the under-representation, structural inequalities and racism afflicting UK Higher Education Institutions. We are committing £2,000 a year for three years in the first instance.

The BME Events and Activities Small Grants Scheme will provide grants of up to £750 to support activities and events run by BME historians or on subjects relating to BME history. It is open to applicants looking to run conferences, workshops and symposia, as well as other activities such as exhibitions, walking tours, performances of podcasts. The initial call for applications for funding opens today and will close on 1 September 2019. Further details are available here: http://socialhistory.org.uk/bme-events-and-activities/

Lucinda Matthews-Jones and Jamie Wood, co-convenors of History UK, said:

This funding scheme represents another strand to History UK’s support for diversification of the historical profession in higher education, including events around inclusivity in the classroom, new-to-teaching workshops, and our annual academic job boot camp. We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with other subject organisations to address the issues raised in the RHS report last year and hope that this can lead to further initiatives.

A panel of experts, comprised of Professor Catherine Hall (University College London), Dr Meleisa Ono-George (University of Warwick) and Dr Jonathan Saha (University of Leeds), will assess all applications to the scheme.

This support is open to professional historians (working in universities or elsewhere), independent scholars, retired staff and students alike. The only stipulation is that applicants should be (or be willing to become) members of either the SHS or EHS. In the case of applicants who are permanently employed in Higher Education Institutions, their department should also be (or willing to become) a subscribing member of History UK.

British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH) BAME Essay Prize

The British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH) is pleased to announce the addition of a new BAME essay prize of £100 for the best undergraduate essay or research project by black, Asian, or other minority ethnic students based in the UK. 

The recent survey of our discipline undertaken by BrANCH, BAAS and HOTCUS, supported by reports published by the British Association of American Studies and the Royal Historical Society, has identified major obstacles to racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion in UK university History.  One such obstacle is the progression of BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) students from undergraduate to postgraduate level.  As an organisation BrANCH is seeking to initiate positive and ongoing action in response to these obstacles.

We therefore invite submissions for our new, BAME undergraduate coursework essay prize of work written on any area of American history in the long nineteenth century by students identifying as BAME and in their second or third year of undergraduate study (third or fourth year in Scottish HEIs).  Work should be 2500-3500 words in length, to include notes but exclude bibliography.  While we expect the thematic content to be broad, judges will look for level of knowledge, writing style, degree of original thinking and overall quality of the piece.

Submissions should be sent by EITHER academic staff OR student to BrANCH EDI Officer Andrea Livesey (A.Livesey@ljmu.ac.uk), including a letter from any lecturer in the department confirming author’s registration on an undergraduate course.  Please include a permanent mailing address and email address for the student.

Deadline for submissions: Monday 13th May 2019

The winning entry will be announced in June, with the prize of £100 sent directly to the successful student.

More information about BrANCH and the competition can be found on their website: https://branchuk.wordpress.com/grants-and-prizes/branch-bame-essay-prize/

You can also follow them on Twitter @Branch19th

History UK in 2018

This post outlines some of the activities of History UK in 2018 and is based on a message that was sent out to subscribing institutions. We thought that it might be of broader interest!

History UK is the independent national body promoting and monitoring History in UK Higher Education. It is funded by history departments or their equivalents and campaigns on issues of concern to academic historians and the broader history community, particularly in the following areas:

  • The profile of history in higher education and beyond
  • The state of the profession, particularly the recruitment and career development of undergraduates, postgraduates, researchers and staff
  • Research culture, including the research resources available to historians and the impact of the REF
  • Teaching and learning within the discipline, especially the impact of the NSS and TEF
  • Audit culture, to ensure that the demands of external audit and quality measurement are appropriate to the discipline and light in touch.

For example, some of the events that we have organised in the last year include:

  • our Plenary and AGM in November on The Future of the Humanities, which brought together Professor Stefan Collini (Cambridge) and Dr Karen Salt (Nottingham), as well as a round table of younger scholars – Sara Barker (Leeds), James Baker (Sussex) and Sihong Lin (Manchester);
  • in May, one of our co-convenors, Jamie Wood, hosted an event at the University of Lincoln with the British Library Labs, to explore the use of the BL’s digital collections in teaching and research;
  • in May, we also ran our third academic job bootcamp, in which both early career historians and PhD students participatedand which helped at least one attendee secure a job;
  • in May, we supported a workshop for school and university teachers onTransitioning in History from School to Universityat Leeds Beckett University;
  • in September, our education officer, Peter D’Sena, ran the third New to Teaching Workshop(co-funded by the Royal Historical Society), exploring themes including digital history, lecturing, small group teaching, curriculum design and career development;
  • in September, our research officer, Neil Fleming, together with our co-convener, Lucie Matthews-Jones, organised a Research Grant Workshopwith input from the AHRC and the British Academy, as well as a range of speakers who have held grants.

July also saw the culmination of a year-long partnership with The National Archives on collaborative working between the higher education and archive sectors. This resulted in the publication of a guide to collaborationand a workshopat the TNA. In 2019 we are continuing our close working relationship with the TNA and are co-sponsoring a series of workshops(at the IHR, Liverpool, Cardiff, Bristol, Leeds, Colchester and Birmingham – sign up here) that further explore (and seek to develop) partnerships between higher education, especially History, and archives, whether in teaching, research or other kinds of activity.

We have also continued to develop close working ties with a number of organisations. For example, we have run combined events with the Royal Historical Society, History Lab and History Lab Plus, and HUK representatives attend meetings and speak at events of these bodies. Through our education officer, and other steering committee members, we have close links with the HEA and Historical Association. We are also members of the Arts and Humanities Alliance.

We hope this goes some way to demonstrating what your support of History UK enables us to do. The coming year promises to be just as exciting as last. Our twitter feed (@history_uk) and website (http://www.history-uk.ac.uk)both publicise our  events, but also act as a forum for members to feedback and even blog on their experiences of our events or on other important HE issues.

Ultimately we work for our members, and you have a say through your representative on the steering committee, or (if you do not currently have a representative) by directly contacting the co-convenors, Dr. Lucie Matthews-Jones (L.M.Matthews-Jones@ljmu.ac.uk) or Dr. Jamie Wood (jwood@lincoln.ac.uk).

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