What is this all for?

The people behind this campaign have a passion for mental health. We are strong believers in supporting people living with mental illness to achieve their vision of a good life. We also believe that educational institutions owe a duty of care to students and staff 1,2.

We have continued this campaign since May 2015 because the University of Western Australia (UWA) continues to show a lack of understanding that the decisions it is making have severe consequences on the mental health and wellbeing of staff and students. In particular, we are focused on the impact cuts to funding are having on postgraduate research students. We are members of this group, have represented the interests of this group, and know the vulnerability of this group first hand.

Our thesis is simple: postgraduate students are already at a high risk for mental illness. Insufficient financial support by the university  results in a higher risk for mental health complications during candidacy. Poor mental health has an impact of the physical and psychological wellbeing of the student but also disrupts their research, making it less likely they will complete in a timely fashion.

Let’s take a quick look at mental health in the postgraduate community. It’s pretty difficult to find numbers for the Australian situation (there’s definitely a PhD in that by the way…) but there are some very useful American studies we can share with you.

A 2007 study compared undergraduates and graduates experience of mental health. The undergraduates mental health came out slightly worse than that of graduate students, who are our focus.

Mental health has an impact on the ability of postgraduate students to work and thrive in the university environment. The report found that “41.2% of graduate students reported that mental or emotional difficulties affected their academic performance in the past 4 weeks.” (Eisenberg et. al., p.537)

Insecure finances are clearly linked to worsening mental health for postgraduate students by this study. “Students reporting current financial struggles were more likely to screen positive for depression and anxiety disorders.” (Eisenberg et. al., p.538)

75% of graduate students surveyed in the 2007 study reported their financial situation as tight or or a struggle. (Eisenberg  et. al., p.537)

Mental Health Among University Students p537

The the 2007 study helps us to establish that mental health is already an obstacle for many postgraduate students in conducting and completing their research. Financial insecurity contributes to poorer mental health, and the vast majority of postgraduate students in the study were on the brink of financial struggle.

More recently, The Graduate Assembly at the University of California Berkeley (UC Berkeley) released a Graduate Student Happiness and Wellbeing report in 2014.

This report showed the prevalence of mental illness within the postgraduate student community of UC Berkeley:

  • “About 47% of PhD students and 37% of Master’s and Professional students score as depressed. Students in the Arts & Humanities fare poorly on several indicators and 64% score as depressed.” (Summary of Findings)
  • “Between 43-46% of graduate students in Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering and “Other Professional” score as depressed, while 37% of Law, 34% of Social Sciences and 28% of Business students score as depressed.” (Report, p.7)

The report also reinforced the link between financial insecurity and poor mental health. “Graduate students generally lack confidence in their finances, and report worrying about money lately, though there is substantial variance in their responses. Unsurprisingly, students who lack confidence in their finances are less satisfied with their lives and exhibit more depressive symptoms. Graduate students mentioned financial concerns more than any other topic in their written comments.” (Report, p.4)

Other people are living with less money and have poorer mental health than postgraduate students – we acknowledge that. But UWA is in a unique position to make a difference to the financial and psychological wellbeing of postgraduate research students. UWA attracts students with the promise that “UWA is committed to recruiting, retaining and developing high-quality researchers.”3 Adequate financial support is crucial to retaining and developing high-quality researchers.

Centrelink is not a fall back for most postgraduate students, especially scholarship holders. Scholarship holders are ineligible for Centrelink and are restricted to working no more than 8 hours per week.4 We strongly recommend reading the Building Australia’s Research Capacity report to learn more about the lack of funding available, especially Chapter 4. Based on this report, the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Innovation recommended that:

Access to Youth Allowance, Austudy or Abstudy be extended to all students enrolled in a higher degree by research, noting that: „
– access to those schemes does not determine eligibility; „
– candidates in receipt of a scholarship or other source of income above a determined assessment threshold would be ineligible;
– and „access to those schemes should be regarded as secondary to access to a scholarship or award with an adequate living stipend. (p.85)

This recommendation is yet to be implemented.5

In addition, the prospects for people after they finish their research degree are getting poorer. The UC Berkeley report highlighted this as another significant stressor and it was reinforced in the Australian context by an article in The Conversation today. UWA can’t fix that – but they can fix the funding they provide and fulfill their duty of care to their students.

– Good mental health makes it easier to do good work and you’re healthier!
– Postgrads have poorer mental health to begin with.
– Having less money makes mental health even worse.
– UWA is giving less money. Everyone loses.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, here’s some services you can call:

Further reading:
What I Wish We Taught First Years
Lighting Dark: Fixing Academia’s Mental Health Problem
There’s an awful cost to getting a PhD no-one talks about
Depression more common on college campuses; Graduate students more at risk


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