As evidence grows that many researchers experience poor mental health, it is becoming imperative to understand the experiences of those who may be offering support to these individuals. Indeed, without this knowledge it is difficult to appropriately support, train and value those who help colleagues going through mental health difficulties.
To bridge this gap, the open-access journal eLife joined forces with researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Columbia. Together, they released a survey to capture the needs and experiences of these informal “supporters”. The results of this work channel the voices of nearly 2,000 participants, shedding light on the complexity of the supporting experience. The conclusions highlight, for example, the key role of peers, a population that is often overlooked as providers of help.
Crucially, the findings shed light on the unmet needs of supporters, who require both emotional and practical support in their role, yet often do not receive any from their institution. As one university lecturer shared: “Universities need to acknowledge this as work, for example in workload models, professional development or promotions discussions. 'They' love and need us to do it but don't support it. Many mental health supporters around me are fed up and burning out."
The survey depicts the supporting experience as positive and meaningful for supporters, but also as often challenging, draining, or taking a lot of time. This invisible workload affects in particular women and those new to leadership. "I am repeatedly frustrated by my (often male) colleagues' stated belief that 'there is no mental health problem' at our institution.” said a female mid-career group leader. “They don't know about it because their trainees come to me, not to them, with their issues. I receive no institutional recognition for this role."
The results and implications from the survey are relayed in a peer-reviewed report: https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/313144 and a feature article: https://elifesciences.org/articles/64739. Hoping that the research community will build on these results, the dataset and code have been made freely available to reuse. Research institutions would also benefit from familiarising themselves with the results, and adapting the survey to grasp the needs of their own communities. Building a healthier, kinder research culture will not be possible without understanding and accompanying those who, invisible, are already providing help to the researchers that need it most.
Features Editor at eLife - The Journal
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