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Durham University

Counselling Service

PGR Catalyst Project

Students’ mental health

Students’ mental health is a well-known issue that affects and concerns universities across the UK. Yet, the focus is often on undergraduate students and not postgraduate research students, who can be more reluctant to discuss their concerns about and experiences of mental health within their University.

A recent Vitae report highlighted the risks among postgraduate research students regarding their wellbeing and mental health, the challenges institutions face, and the effectiveness of support provision.

The HEFCE Catalyst Fund provided £1.5 million for 17 projects across the HE sector to improve support for the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate research students. The Office for Students worked with Research England to deliver this scheme. The projects develop new practice for pastoral support and training materials for students, supervisors and other staff.

Online mental health training resources for PGR students and supervisors

Durham University, supported by Prof Stan Taylor, three Doctoral Training Partnerships - NINE, Northern Bridge and IAPETUS – and the Durham Student’s Union was awarded a grant to develop an online educational resource to support postgraduate research students’ mental health and wellbeing.

Our starting point in this project was the recognition that many students are unsure about whether to name any mental health difficulties that they experience during their studies. Supervisors are not always aware of the challenges, and even if they notice, they often need support to know how or if to raise the issue. We know that mental health can impact the process of postgraduate supervision. Our intention was to create training materials that support all parties to recognise and name distress, and to signpost appropriately. We have also created tools to help all parties reflect on how supervision may be impacted, for either individual reflection or as a support for supervisory discussions or group training days.

The aims of the training are to:

  • Identify and address mental health needs within the supervisory relationship to promote early intervention
  • Recognise the specific role of supervisors in supporting mental health and wellbeing, and identify the limits of that relationship for resolving wider mental health difficulties
  • Prevent the development or exacerbation of mental health symptoms by identifying the helpful and unhelpful relationship patterns that can emerge in supervision.

The modules have been designed:

  • To be accessed by students and supervisors, so that all parties receive the same training
  • For individuals to access at the point of need (to support their own wellbeing, that of a peer, or if a supervisor has a student experiencing difficulties)
  • To be used as a basis for group trainings (student induction events, supervisor training courses, or departmental away days
  • With a summary module that could be made compulsory for all, containing key information, and more detailed modules for those with the need and interest to gain further awareness and skills

Fundamentals of mental health for postgraduate researchers and supervisors

A brief summary of the key issues all PGR supervisors and students should know. It has been prepared such that it could be a compulsory module for induction, training programmes or whole departmental approach to improving mental health awareness. This should take 10-15 minutes to complete.

Module 1: PGR mental health: Evidence and experience

A review of the evidence and research literature on the factors contributing to PGR mental health issues.

Module 2: Mental Health First Aid in the context of PGR study and supervision

An adaptation of Mental Health First Aid tailored for the PGR population, with information on common conditions and the skills of interventions and signposting for students and peers.

Module 3: PGR supervision in the context of mental health difficulties

This module investigates how the process of PGR supervision may be impacted if a student is experiencing difficulties. It uses a Case Study approach to demonstrate the challenges with discussion points for review. A framework and tools are offered to help both students and supervisors reflect on any difficulties in the supervisory processes arising from mental health, either for self-reflection or to support all parties to address the issues within the supervision or with third party support.

For Durham students, the materials are available on DUO on the Postgraduate Training and Development site.

For Durham staff, the materials are available on DUO on the Mental Health Training organisation, in the PGR section.

The materials are available for all HE institutions to upload to their own virtual learning environments, free of charge, as follows: Fundamentals ; Module 1 ; Module 2 ; Module 3 (extract the zip archive and open the index.html file in the folder entitled scormcontent). Online modules were prepared in Articulate. Pdfs of key resources are also available separately, and are embedded within the modules.

Elements of the online modules could be presented live in a training environment, but the font sizes and layouts have not been prepared with this in mind.

The information contained in the Fundamentals summary module and some of the detail from Modules 1 and 2 is presented in the powerpoint file below. Please adapt as you wish, to include details of services at your own institution.

Module 3, on the supervisory process, will lend itself well to small group discussions as part of training events. There are nine case studies, which would be too many for any group to work through. We suggest you choose, or invite the group to select, three to five of the case studies most interesting and relevant to your needs.

The following documents contain useful resources:

Prof StanTaylor compiled a summary of research on the relationship between supervision, wellbeing and mental health, and a bibliography of literature on supervisory styles:

A further resource for PGR mental health is The Wellbeing Thesis, a collaborative project between the University of Derby, King’s College London and Student Minds:

Questions on the content and its application to training courses or induction events can be directed to

The online learning resources were produced by the e-learning consultants White Bicycle. Contact Leah Holroyd,

White Bicycle

Unfortunately we are unable to offer any technical support.

Research England Office for Students