On June 13th, PhDs at Utrecht University launched a petition for psychological support to be available for PhDs at the university. While mental health issues are prevalent among PhDs, a proper support system is lacking. This need is reflected in the large number of signatures (more than 250) collected in one week. The petition is supported by PhDs (62%), and by UU staff from all levels of the university.
The petition follows two actions by the two UU-wide PhD organizations: Prout – PhD Network Utrecht, and UPP – Utrecht PhD Party. Prout and UPP have coordinated the first symposium on PhD mental health at Utrecht University in January 25th 2018. This was followed-up by a guide for PhDs, and a letter with 10 recommendations for PhD well-being, sent to the UU board in March, and strongly supported by PhD councils.
In early April, the UU board responded to the letter in a university council meeting. The UU board expressed their understanding and willingness to implement the recommendations, all except for the first one: “Appoint a full-time PhD psychologist – make it easy for PhDs who are struggling to get specialized professional help”. It was reasoned that providing healthcare is not a core task of the University. According to the UU board, PhDs should follow the current procedures, i.e. consulting with the company doctor (bedrijfsarts), and with the social workers (maatschappelijk werker). The board said it would look into the possibility of training the company doctor and social workers in specific PhD issues.
However, considering the prevalence of mental health issues among PhD candidates, there is a need for specific psychological support services. While UU students can go to the student psychologist, PhDs can only meet with social workers, or with a confidential advisor. For mental health problems, they are forced to seek help outside the university. Comments to the petition show that many PhDs feel or felt the need to have mental health support during the PhD. Some mention that when seeking help outside, general psychologists do not understand very well the particular situation of doing a PhD.
Having dedicated psychologists and sessions for PhDs at UU would be the best-suited approach, following the steps of other universities: TU Delft appointed a PhD psychologist, and UvA made the student psychological services available to PhDs.
In sum, paraphrasing petition comments, doing a PhD is not only an intellectual, but also a mental challenge, for which support from mental health professionals should be available. Ultimately, it is also in the interest of the university that PhDs are healthy and able to finish. Providing psychological services would acknowledge the importance of mental health, and contribute to a healthier work environment at UU.
While 250 signatures is a good start, we would like to collect many more in the coming months. So, please share it around, and let us know if you have any questions!
Read and sign the petition here: http://bit.do/PHDpetition.