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Courage Project

The Courage Project was researching and piloting innovative approaches to support the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate research students at the University of East Anglia.

The Facts at a Glance

In 2015/16, uea(su) conducted research to assess the impact of poor mental health on PGR students at the UEA. This was dubbed The Honesty Project. 162 postgraduates responded to an anonymous survey distributed via email and social media. The research found that:

  • 77% of respondents had suffered stress whilst studying
  • Some 76% of respondents had suffered with anxiety whilst studying
  • 58% stated that they had been depressed whilst studying
  • 52% reported that they had sleeping problems whilst studying
  • 45% experienced isolation and loneliness whilst studying
  • Only 6% of respondents reported that they had no experience of mental health issues whilst studying

These results are thought to correlate to findings on mental health in universities more generally, with many articles and studies in recent years working to draw attention to the negative effect that the current academic climate has on PhD students and academics. (Example 1, 2, 3)

This clearly shows that more needs to be done to not just support students and academics, but also to push for cultural and structural changes in how mental health problems are treated within the University of East Anglia, and academia more broadly.

What We're Doing

The Courage Project is split into eight ‘strands’, each headed up by different teams. Here at postgraduate(su), we are focusing on four key areas:

  • Building research community culture across UEA’s four Faculties, Norwich Bioscience Institutes and the University of Suffolk
  • Resilience and wellbeing training for PGRs
  • ‘Low commitment’ sports and fitness activity, including exercise and walk groups to support health and build community among staff and PGRs 
  • Creating an Associate Tutor support network

But what does that actually mean in practice?

Groups and Events

We run a variety of regular events and activities in an attempt to build community and reduce feelings of isolation among postgraduate students. Our Walk & Talk events highlight the importance of regular work breaks, providing students with an opportunity to stretch their legs and get away from their desks. PGRunners, our free weekly running group, accepts members of all abilities, from couch potato, to casual jogger, to competitive sprinter. For the outdoorsy we also have PhDiggers, a gardening group with projects in both on-campus allotments and a walled garden near Earlham Hall. We also have a monthly Bullet Journal Group, for either those who love planning their lives, or those who want to get more organised.

Outside of the Courage Project, postgraduate(su) also offers a variety of regular events and opportunities for PGR students, including the Scholars’ Bar weekly pub quiz, the Postgraduate Open Mic Nights, and 5-a-side Football. UEA postgraduates also have access to a variety of sporting activities at reduced costs, including yoga, badminton, and swimming pool access, all for just £1.

Academic Research

A number of PGR Placements have been employed as part of the Courage Project in 2019 to research postgraduate life at the UEA. This research will be informed by the findings of several cross-faculty and cross-institution focus groups focusing on the importance of research community to postgraduate students. More information of the specifics of this research is coming soon.

Our blog, the Lakeside View, launched in Autumn 2018 and has featured a variety of writers across the UEA postgraduate research community. Contributors are offered a platform and invited to write about their experiences of mental health, community, and general PGR life at the UEA.

Resilience Training for PGRs

In November 2019 we ran an Action Learning PPD course, attended by over 20 students who learned such problem solving skills as active listening, open questioning, and emotional intelligence. The attendees will continue to meet as part of Action Learning sets in order to collaboratively solve problems that can arise as part of PhD research.

In April 2019 we ran two mindfulness sessions titled Mind: Full? Practical Meditation Tools for Busy Research Students. These sessions aimed to provide PGRs with the opportunity to build a practical meditation toolkit, to improve resilience in relation to everyday challenges. We will soon also be offering Action Learning sets to postgraduate research students, an innovative, group-led approach to problem solving that PGRs can take forward into their future research projects.

January 2019 saw the start of two six-week Yoga for the Mind courses, tailored to help PGRs manage stress and improve their wellbeing. An Emotional Intelligence workshop ran in February 2019, which worked to help PGRs identify and overcome common emotional triggers associated with PhD research. The uea(su) also recently provided mental health first aid training for 32 postgraduate researchers, qualifying them as mental health first aiders.

We also have a PGR Placement researching the postgraduate response to resilience training, and its use within personal and professional development and training. This research is ongoing.

What is Being Done Elsewhere

The University of East Anglia has its own focus areas within the Courage Project, namely:

  • Evaluating current online support programmes at the UEA:
    • Since November 2018, Dr Ben Marshall has been researching ways in which the Student Support Services can improve their online support for postgraduate researchers. He is also working with an in-house app development team to deliver postgraduate-specific updates to the UEA OpenUp wellbeing app.
  • Supporting staff who supervise postgraduate research:
    • Training for supervisors in mental health essentials, wellbeing signposting, and mental health friendly supervision is currently being piloted at the University of Suffolk. There is also an online module in mental health and postgraduate supervision for existing UEA, NBI, and University of Suffolk academic supervisors.
    • An MA Higher Education Practice module on postgraduate supervision was piloted in October 2018 for staff in HUM and Social Sciences. Some of this material has also been developed for use in sessions on professional development for postgraduate supervisors.
    • Options for offering support to supervisors – such as a space within which to share information, advice, and experiences – are being explored.
    • Additionally, the UEA’s policy on postgraduates working as associate tutors has been clarified and is now more visible on its website. This has been shared with the relevant UEA staff, and made accessible to ATs employed by UEA.
    • A working group has been created to investigate future access to training and professional development for postgraduate researchers who wish to work as associate tutors.
  • Developing a Health Impact Assessment to embed good mental health and wellbeing into everyday practices:
    • An Impact Assessment has been designed and is currently being piloted. The pilot will be evaluated in Autumn 2019.
  • Reviewing mental health issues prevalent in the postgraduate research community; publicising and sharing findings through a national mental health summit:
    • The What Works Centre for Wellbeing (WWCW) Scoping Review on mental health and postgraduate researchers is complete. Findings have been incorporated into plans for the other strands of the Courage Project, and will be presented at the UKCGE: International Conference on the Mental Health & Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers in May 2019.
    • In addition, a PGR Placement has begun work on the design and implementation of the project evaluation.

What more needs to be done?

Mental health issues within academia are, as mentioned above, an enormous issue – one that, realistically, requires more than a two-year project to address. Our hope is that the Courage Project can provide PGR students with the facilities and resources they need to take care of themselves and each other while conducting their PhD research, but also that our work on the project can be used to push for more structural change within academia more broadly. We sincerely hope that discussions about improving mental health in higher education – and the UEA more specifically – continue after the Courage Project ends.

Who are the people behind the project?

Tarnia Mears is the Courage Project Marketing Assistant.

Please direct any queries to SU Voice.

More details to come!

Courage Background

Following on from the 2015/16 Honest Project report mentioned above, the UEA, UEA Student’s Union, University of Suffolk and Norwich Bioscience Institutes were granted HEFCE funding (now split into the Office for Students and Research England) for the Courage Project – a two-year long collaborative research project. The UEA is one of multiple universities granted funding to research and improve the mental health of postgraduate research students following a large-scale push for academic research on the topic. It received the second-largest funding grant and is one of the largest research projects into mental health in academia in the UK.