In June this year we (Andrew Livingstone and Anna Adlam, based in the Psychology department) conducted a survey of wellbeing and mental health among PGR students across the university. Wellbeing and mental health difficulties among PGR students are increasingly being recognised across the higher education sector, and the survey was a first attempt to assess their extent among PGR students at the University of Exeter.

The findings highlight how pervasive wellbeing and mental health difficulties are among PGR students, with the prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms in particular being much higher than in the general population.

At the same time, the results of the survey also point to some key factors that may protect against poor wellbeing, focusing on how connected we feel with others, and positive and supportive experiences in relation to one’s research degree.

A recorded presentation of the early findings can be found here.

Background to the survey

The survey was open during the first three weeks of June. A link was sent to every PGR student at the university, and we received 633 complete responses.

Along with demographic information, the survey included three main sets of measures:

  • Wellbeing and mental health outcomes, including measures of depression and anxiety symptoms, loneliness, self-esteem, stress, and life satisfaction
  • Stressors, or possible causes of poor wellbeing, including negative workplace experiences, negative life events, and the perceived impact of the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Potential protective factors, including respondents’ sense of belonging with different groups, the experience of social support, and the extent to which they felt understood by others

 How prevalent are wellbeing and mental health difficulties?

 Overall, 52% of respondents scored above the cut-off for ‘moderate’ symptoms for either depression, anxiety, or both. This compares to general population rates of 5%-11% for depression and around 5% for anxiety. These symptoms were assessed with widely-used screening questions: the PHQ-8 (depression) and GAD-7 (anxiety).

Scores on these indicators of depression and anxiety symptoms were also strongly correlated with other wellbeing measures: scoring higher on depression and/or anxiety was also associated with greater loneliness and stress, lower self-esteem, and lower life satisfaction.

What predicts better or worse wellbeing and mental health?

Amongst a host of factors, two were consistently the most strongly related to wellbeing: the perceived impact of Covid-19, and the feeling of being understood by others.

Consistent with the findings of other published studies on mental health in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the more severe respondents rated the personal impact of Covid-19 to be, the poorer their scores on wellbeing and mental health measures.

At the same time, believing that others understand us – what we term ‘felt understanding’ – emerged as the strongest protective factor. The more one felt understood by others, the more positive were scores on wellbeing and mental health measures.

What factors were in turn related to that feeling of being understood by others? The results suggest two key sets of factors: (1) positive experiences such as social support in the context of one’s degree/studies, and (2) a sense of belonging and collective identities. Especially relevant were a sense of belonging with other PGR students, and of belonging to multiple groups (including outside of academia).

Understanding the survey outcomes

How should we interpret these findings? On the one hand, they confirm the striking extent of wellbeing and mental health difficulties in the PGR community.

On the other hand, the levels of wellbeing and mental health difficulties revealed by the survey are most likely not specific to the University of Exeter, or indeed to PGR students in a university context. Instead, they fit an emerging pattern of wellbeing difficulties across the higher education sector as a whole.

For instance, levels of wellbeing and mental health difficulties were very much in line with other national and international surveys of PGR wellbeing. The results also echo similar findings from UK-wide research on wellbeing amongst undergraduate students, and amongst academic staff.

It is also important to stress that the findings do not in themselves show cause-and-effect relationships. For example, we can’t say for certain whether any of the factors assessed in the survey actually cause better or worse mental health outcomes.

Likewise, the findings don’t directly show that the PGR experience itself leads to poorer wellbeing, although aspects of individuals’ experiences during their studies are likely to be very important.

How can poor wellbeing and mental health be addressed?

The findings also point to some systemic and social strategies that may help to promote and protect PGR wellbeing. These complement more widely-known, individual-focused strategies (e.g., cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness) and the expanding support offered by the University of Exeter Wellbeing Services.

The importance of belonging and group identities comes through particularly strongly. Fostering a sense of community between PGR students, and with departmental colleagues, will almost certainly be a helpful part of a wellbeing strategy.

It is not the only part, though: it is also very likely that maintaining different sorts of group identities – both inside and outside of university – is a big protective factor for individuals too. Enabling PGR students to have a strong sense of self and identity outside of work and study is thus also important.

Finally, the importance of felt understanding – that feeling of being understood by others – suggests that we can all work to improve our everyday communication with colleagues at every level. In an environment in which we often feel defined by our work, and in which we also frequently receive (and give) critical evaluation, developing the skills to foster an empathic and understanding workplace culture may be one of the most important investments we can make in terms of wellbeing.

Dr Andrew Livingstone and Dr Anna Adlam

If you have any concerns regarding your mental health and wellbeing, you can contact University of Exeter Wellbeing services in the following ways:

Other advice and resources for your mental health can be found at the following links: