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.

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