Community Acuity (6) enabling discussion about students’ state of mind

‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students. 

This is a guest post by Dr Paula Meth, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield.

This piece explores my personal views on fostering supervision that enables communication between supervisor and student about their ‘state of mind’ (worries, emotional health or mental health). I write this from the position of a supervisor who has both failed and succeeded in supporting students through tough emotional times, ‘writing blocks’, and intellectual confusion which have resulted in their inability to move forwards with their work.

The first point I should make is that as supervisors we are not trained as counsellors and we must remember this when we feel that we have failed in our duty to support our doctoral students through complex emotional and psychological events and realities. In these cases, listening is good, but a firm encouragement for a student to see their GP or the University Counselling services is essential.

My second point is that time is of the essence. I’m familiar with depression as a relatively common affliction during doctoral work, and in most cases a period of Leave of Absence (LOA) has allowed management of such an illness sufficiently for students to go on to successful completion. However, spotting depression is very difficult and because we can no longer apply for retrospective LOA, a significant anxiety for me, is the rapidity with which weeks pass in silence where no progress is made either through communication with the student (no response, or ‘everything’s fine’), or in their ability to secure a clear medical diagnosis to facilitate LOA. That the lost time can never be regained.

Thirdly, relating to your students makes all the difference. In these cases we supervisors need to be on top of these issues, and to keep up email or other contact relatively frequently to ensure time lapses do not become significant. This has to be done in a very delicate and supportive manner, otherwise we just become part of the bureaucracy that students are struggling with. Forms of communication really matter when students are struggling with their state of mind or with mental health challenges. Drawing on formal university processes and notifications that come across as ‘warnings’ or ‘tellings off’ can alienate students when their anxiety is high and fears of their (lack of) work are growing. In these cases an informal stroll together, lunch off-site or a phone call can prove more productive and allow a student to open up more readily about where they are at.

Listen carefully is my fourth learning point. Our pastoral roles are blurred here as our relationships with our doctoral students often extend beyond the normal student-staff distinction, becoming at times almost collegial but with a distinct unevenness in power! This has its advantages for communication about their mental health, in that we might see them more often than other students, bump into them informally in our places of work outside of formal supervision and thus have the capacity to question, check, probe and follow up on evident shifts in well-being. But familiarity can also be problematic as students, particularly more formal (or polite, or deferential) students, may feel unable to communicate beyond ‘shallow’ (superficial?) friendliness during these informal encounters, rendering them misleading for supervisors who may then assume ‘all is well’.

Lastly, remember your student is a whole person. An additional feature of the doctoral experience is that life has a canny way of making itself visible during the PhD process (given how long it goes on for), and PhD’s are times of relationship breakdowns, changing exercise regimes, employment and affordability crises and family health issues. Some supervisors may view themselves as separate from these concerns, but I’m not able to hold such a line, as these factors intimately shape doctoral progress. So my additional tip for maintaining good communication is allowing and indeed accepting that some supervision time may have to be used to discuss personal matters troubling our students.

For more on spotting the symptoms of stress, and what to do about it as a supervisor, see this video.

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