Thursday 7th March 2019 was University Mental Health Day. So what better way to spend the morning than with a group of academics who supervise PhD students at the University of Birmingham who were being trained as Mental Health First Aid Champions by MHFA England?

The need for Mental Health First Aid training was identified by Jessica Blair a Microbiologist, Research Fellow and PhD supervisor. Jessica recognised that an increasing number of PhD students both she and her colleagues supervised were experiencing poor mental health. Whilst mental health support for undergraduates is far from perfect in Higher Education institutions and the NHS across the UK, the particular context and experiences of PhD students means they are less likely to access support than their undergraduate peers. 

Yet their academic supervisors have, on the whole, not received the mental health training they need to equip them with the knowledge, confidence and skills to provide information, support and signposting to those they supervise. 

And so the University of Birmingham Alumni Association kindly provided financial support to for Jessica to commission MHFA England training for 32 academics who supervise PhD students. University Mental Health Day was the first of the two training sessions.

This is an important and innovative piece of work – evidence from across the country is that postgraduate students tend to engage less with their student unions and university support systems, so their supervisor can, with the right knowledge, skills and beliefs, play a really important role in providing mental health support to PhD students.

It was a privilege to be part of the conversations the group had – they were passionate, compassionate and determined to provide the best support they can to their PhD students. 

Massive props to Jessica on recognising the need and doing something about it, to the University of Birmingham Alumni Association for having the foresight to fund this pilot and to all involved in this innovative work. Given postgraduate students form almost 50% of the student population in Higher Education I hope many more will academics, schools and institutions will follow your lead.