Time to talk about student mental health

Located in the northern part of Italy, seated in a valley surrounded by the Dolomites, is the beautiful town of Bolzano. A better host for the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER) than the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano is hard to imagine. It is early in the morning – 7.30 to be exact – and a small number of enthusiastic, early career researchers have gathered to learn more about the topic of social inclusion in higher education and research. The title of this U21 FINE networking seminar is ‘The dreams, possibilities and necessities of inclusive research’. Invited speakers are Professor Julie Allan of the University of Birmingham, Dr Gillean McCluskey of the University of Edinburgh and Professor Simon McGrath of the University of Nottingham, all of whom give different perspectives on the topic.

A summary of the content of this meeting doesn’t come easy considering the broad and in-depth character of the issues being discussed. For instance, Professor Julie Allan’s presentation on equity and mental health in higher education clearly highlighted that there is a lot of work that needs to be done within the academy. By contrast, Dr Gillean McCluskey started her talk on the concept of quality research by inviting us to a minute of silent reflection. That is a strong statement which conveys the idea that, in research, originality, rigor and significance only come with thought and time. Finally, Professor Simon McGrath brought another question to the table: what gives you the right to research the people you are researching? He highlighted the importance of inclusive research design but noted how it is often a case of white, educated men explaining the world to the world. One important question which emerged from his presentation was: How do we empower the people we are researching?


Professor Julie Allan talks about the different social exclusions caused by policies of higher education

However, some questions stick hard in the mind because they touch on the experiences of people we know and care about. Julie Allan’s presentation on poor mental health in higher education raised such questions. According to statistics, many of our colleagues will be affected by mental health issues during their doctoral research education. But why is this the case?

In fact, many reasons can be found. The loneliness of the PhD. The culture of competition in higher education. Multitasking paired with the constant strive for quality, originality, rigor and significance. Don’t get us wrong. We do understand that striving for quality is imperative. But how do we manage all these competing demands as young scholars?

It is striking how often a person that appears to be in control falls ill under the burden of a too heavy workload. So, is it the case that we, on top of everything else, also need to appear to be self-sufficient?

No. We think not.

On the contrary, we should talk more about our experiences of the academy. And, in saying that, we mean also the less positive experiences of poor mental health. Sharing different views and experiences of mental illness is a sign of strength and honesty, not of weakness. A stigma is a stigma only to the degree that it’s labelled abnormal. And, to be honest, only a fool would remain untouched by the demands put upon an emerging scholar.

It is time to end this culture of silence. We should get together and share not only our victories but also our fears and feelings of defeat. And most of all how we manage them.

Emil Bernmalm and David Örbring

Lund University, Sweden


Gorczynski P. (2018) More academics and students have mental health problems than ever before in The Conversation [online]. Date of publication: 22 February 2018.

Photo sources: Emil Bernmalm and Alison Milner


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