Mental health and wellbeing in the history and heritage PhD community – three of three

In my previous post, the second in this series, I showcased some research into how social media is used by emerging and established academics, and used my own experiences to highlight how it does, or could, enhance the accessibility, for PhD students with a mental health issue, of some typical research activities. In this final post I’ll explore the other side of this coin by asking: What are some of the obstacles to using social media for this purpose? I’ll also share my parting thoughts about what we might do, as active participants in the HE community, to move towards a more inclusive environment for PhD students experiencing mental illness. 

Barriers to Inclusivity 

Although my own experiences of using social media during my PhD have had largely positive impacts on my mental wellness, I have also encountered some barriers to inclusivity. The first involved a Twitter exchange, where I had asked if it would be possible to speak at a subject-specific PGR forum by video-link. On that occasion the group didn’t feel confident to accommodate the request, which highlights a barrier also referred to by several of the scholars I have drawn on in my previous posts.  

“We don’t know how to do that…” 

Nandez and Borrego, Rowlands, and Boté all point to skills being a barrier to social media use among academics. Rowlands et al in particular provide evidence that social media use is greatest among those who identify as being an ‘innovator’, or ‘early adopter’ of new technologies. As a self-professed geek I would certainly put myself into one of these two categories, which is why I felt confident to set up the live stream of my original conference paper on this topic. But I recognise that not everyone shares this confidence, and that, in the face of the range of social media available, the desire to develop skills may well be tempered by feelings of being overwhelmed.  

Rowlands’ study also shows, though, that academics tend to be selective in the platforms they use (with almost two-thirds using only one or two tools) – suggesting perhaps that we don’t need proficiency in all platforms, but rather an awareness of the ones which are (to borrow a phrase) ‘trending’. 

“We don’t feel comfortable doing that…” 

I’ve already touched on this in my earlier comments about Bennett and Folley’s work on managing a hybridised digital identity, and my own insecurities about sharing too much about works in progress online – even to would-be collaborators. But, again, Rowlands’ work is pertinent here in highlighting that a lack of clarity about the benefits of social media constitutes a barrier to employing it for research purposes, in some cases.  

Like me, Bennett and Folley self-censored their digital selves to ‘fit’ their ideas of how others perceived them. They too were anxious about revealing their weaknesses or gaps in their knowledge, and fearful of receiving a critical reception. This aligns with Pantic’s findings on social networking and mental health, which suggest that inaccurate perceptions of others online (part of what we might call ‘Imposter Syndrome’) can contribute to reduced self-esteem in those who are predisposed to psychiatric illness. 

“We don’t have time for that…” 

Time to acquire skills and build familiarity with tools, and time to integrate social media into the research workflow are both highlighted as issues in studies of social media use among academics. Nandez and Borrego’s work on Academia.edu in particular demonstrates that academics’ intended use of the platform was greater than their actual use; suggesting perhaps that it seemed like a good idea at the time but was demanding to put into practice. The comments on their survey confirmed that this was in part due to respondents being ‘time poor’.  

As I mentioned in my earlier post, juggling ‘work’ and ‘social’ uses of social media can also be seen as a challenge. This has also been linked with time management by Leon and Pigg, who observe that “[digital multitasking can] evoke strong affective responses”, including guilt and shame, among graduate students. Such feelings can, of course, be indicators of mental unwellness.  

What can we do? 

So, what can we do to move towards a more inclusive environment for emerging academics, in which digital technologies play a part? 

I think that what my experiences, and the research that I have presented in this blog series shows is that social media are not simply tools for socialising among digital natives’ or sharing photographs of one’s dinner. They impact upon a broader range of research practices than I had appreciated before I began reflecting on my experiences, and in more nuanced ways. Likewise, I hope that I’ve been able to show mental health in a more nuanced light – not only a “crisis” affecting PhD students and HE institutions, but also a way of life, day-to-day for a significant section of the research community, whose needs might (in some cases) be addressed simply, by subtle extensions to existing practice, and by seeing social media and ‘traditional’ research practices as complementary bedfellows, rather than options to choose between. If I could offer any advice on what might be done to effect change then, it would, humbly, be this: 

  • Seek to understand the nuances of social media in heritage and other humanities PhD research; their potential, and their potential pitfalls 
  • Resist seeing social media and ‘traditional’ research practices as an either/or situation requiring a polarised choice; take an holistic view which values each for its own contribution to the academy 
  • Prioritise development of social media competencies and understanding around social media/mental health relationships (both positive and negative) within organisational strategy, in order to ensure that the mental health challenges of the present lead to a healthier, more inclusive research environment in the future. 

Above all though, I think that a lot can be achieved – in digital literacy and in mental health – by advocating for three things: 

Understanding the needs and potential for growth. 

Daring to talk. 

And challenging existing practices, to bring about change. 

Mental health and wellbeing in the history and heritage PhD community – two of three

Following on from my previous post, which summarised some of the scholarly work on the relationships between academia, social media, and mental health, in this post I’d like to look a little more at how emerging academics like myself might use social media in the research workflow. I’ll also use illustrative examples from my own experiences to highlight some of the pros and cons of social media to a PhD student with a mental illness, in order to address the questions: What are some of the challenges to inclusivity for PHD students with a mental illness? And how do social media intersect with this?  

Social media and research 

‘Social media are used at all points of the research cycle, from identifying research opportunities to disseminating research results.’ Nández and Borrego (2013)  

As the above quotation makes clear, social media are used broadly by researchers, at all stages of the research cycle. Here I’ll highlight six areas of the research workflow which tally most closely with my own experiences. 

Information seeking 

Accessibility of sources is obviously crucial to research. Studies on information seeking and libraries science suggest that this access is being increasingly strengthened as publishers invest in digital solutions. According to Tenopir et al, e-journals are now the most common source for reading articles – with “even 42% of historians” using them most days, according to one paper. The reader must interpret that quotation as they will! 

Likewise, the growth in digital archive collections (such as that of the International Bomber Command Centre), and in digitised object collections facilitated by 3D recording technologies (particularly where these are open-source) enhances accessibility of cultural heritage, and encourages a more inclusive mode of collaboration between those who study it.  

E-journals and digital archives – where the interaction can be one-way – might not be considered truly social media (whose defining feature is two-way communication between peers), but with e-reading platforms now facilitating mark-up directly through the publisher’s website, and learning technologies such as Talis Elevate encouraging collaboration with others at the point of reading sources, I think an argument can be made for interaction with e-content as a social media activity. 

Networking and collaboration 

Nandez and Borrego found in their 2013 study that researchers signing up to academic social media platform Academia.edu did so to connect with other researchers in 67% of cases. This is supported by Rowlands et al in relation to a broader range of social media platforms, the most popular of which were those to facilitate collaborative authoring, conferencing, and scheduling meetings – i.e. tools to allow researchers to connect with one another. 

But while Rowlands observes that “social media tools allow [researchers] to listen to ‘different voices’”, the drawbacks of having a limited social media presence, of working in a niche field, and the risks of operating in what we might call an academic echo chamber also need to be considered. Despite the statistics quoted in my previous post about the level of social media use among arts and humanities researchers, my impression of the PhD community on Twitter, at least, is that researchers engaged with that platform predominantly align with STEM subjects. As a history and heritage researcher, I sometimes feel in a minority.  

To relate this to my own experiences of inclusivity: The recently new phenomenon of the Twitter conference is one of the things that inspired me to investigate my life as an anxious, social media active researcher. As I find it challenging to attend large social events, particularly where they involve a lot of travelling, Twitter conferences like that organised in 2017 by Institute of Conservation member Pieta Greaves (search on Twitter for #IconTC, but also #PresTC and #PATC for other examples) allow me to engage specifically with scholars and research in my fields of interest at reduced anxiety levels, and reduced cost. The permanence of material means that I can re-visit it at a pace that suits my state of health, and I find that I feel more confident approaching people that I consider ‘experts’, or more senior researchers, online than I would in person. 

Similarly, efforts by organisations or groups (such as the University of Lincoln’s Doctoral School and most recently the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works) to set up webinars, recordings, or live video streams of content such as conferences, CPD or professional forums, are valuable in enabling me to participate in development opportunities, or to be heard alongside my peers. 

Dissemination 

Although the traditional dissemination pathways of journals, conferences and so on remain valuable to academics, social media are expanding as complementary channels according to Rowlands et al. Rowlands and others, though, point to some implications and challenges arising from these alternative forms of dissemination, including the knock-on effects that might be felt by publishers or librarians from social media channels being arguably less formal and, for example, less easily archivable.  

From a personal point of view, though, I find that I want to share my work online, and I want to use that to invite feedback and collaboration, but also that I have some unanswered questions. If I chat with other researchers at a conference the interaction is transient; if I do so online there is a permanence, and a lack of control over how my words and ideas are archived or shared, which makes me uncomfortable about what – and to what level – I disseminate works in progress especially. I feel that I don’t understand issues of intellectual property enough, as they apply to social media, to have confidence in making my work more visible in the public sphere. 

Career Trajectory 

In sharing their own experiences of social media use as PhD students, Liz Bennett and Sue Folley have written that a student’s digital identity “is entwined with their potential to gain employment”. This is supported by Boté, in a recently published book on library practice for graduate students, and by Nandez and Borrego, who found that a “higher proportion of students [and] postdocs used the service [Academia.edu]” to disseminate their curriculum vitae, compared to established academics. 

Building and maintaining a digital reputation is seen as important in developing employability, and while Van Zyl points to the benefits of social networking in doing this (for example, public recognition and reward for contributions through likes and shares), Bennett and Folley highlight the hybridised nature of their digital identities – part student, part teaching professional / part novice, part expert – and how this left them feeling conflicted about what content to share online. As an Associate Lecturer in my subject area, as well as a PhD student, this heightened sense of having the ‘right’ digital identity is certainly something I can empathise with. 

Peer Support 

Even though they don’t focus on their mental wellbeing specifically, the work of Bennett and Folley is rich with key words relating to mental health issues – anxiety, stress, fear, imposter syndrome, and so onsuggesting that even where a mental health problem has not been diagnosed, the sensations can nevertheless be part of the PhD student experience. 

While psychiatrists are conflicted about whether social media use increases or decreases isolation, some recent studies have found that reaching out online leads to “feelings of group belonging” among those with mental illness. And Inger Mewburn, an authority on the research student experience, advocates for ‘troubles talk’ (communication exchanges “where one or more people gather to tell stories of situations that have caused some kind of discomfort or disruption”) as being effective in helping “PhD students to negotiate and manage the precarious process of ‘becoming academic’”.  

Likewise, Garrison, Anderson, and Archer – although writing in 2000, before the advent of many social media platforms – point to the most successful educational experiences arising from connecting with others socially, as well as cognitively. Although, according to Leon and Pigg (2011) students can “struggle with the tension” between using social media for ‘pleasure’ and ‘work’, this evidence perhaps suggests defining our boundaries more fluidly, and recognising the palliative value of talking about things other than our PhDs. Let’s be honest: how many of us start conversations at PGR networking events with “So what are you studying?” rather than “Have you travelled far today?” or even good old How do you do?”? Perhaps we should be more mindful. 

In my own experience, interacting with others on Twitter particularly (e.g. following and contributing to the hashtags #AcademicChatter and #PhDChat) has brought me into contact with others with whom to share my triumphant, and not-so-triumphant moments, and has allowed me to extend the reach of my profile as a researcher beyond the confines of the University. Something which is otherwise a challenge, given my mental health triggers and symptoms. 

 

While this post has focused on the potential for inclusivity afforded by social media, and the mostly positive impacts that I have felt from its role in my own PhD research, there are nevertheless barriers to using social media for enhanced inclusivity that must also be considered. My third, and final post will draw out a few of these, before suggesting what we might do to move towards a more inclusive environment for PhD students experiencing mental health difficulties.

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.

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

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