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Google ‘wellbeing’ and you’ll get a dictionary definition and lots of tips on how to improve your mental health. But what is wellbeing? And how does it relate to students and higher education?

While there are many aspects to the subject, the mental health charity Mind describes mental wellbeing as: how we feel and how well we cope with everyday life.

Good mental wellbeing encompasses feeling confident; feeling and expressing a range of emotions; feeling engaged with the world; being able to live and work productively; and coping with everyday life, change and uncertainty.

Our mental wellbeing can change in response to external influences, and we all have times when it’s lower or higher. But if someone experiences low mental wellbeing over a long period of time, they become more likely to develop a mental health condition.

Fit to perform

Musical Impact is a research project looking to enhance the health and wellbeing of musicians studying and working in Britain. Funded by the AHRC and led by the Centre for Performance Science at the Royal College of Music, it looks at mental and physical health for performance and has begun to demonstrate that stress management, healthy lifestyles and opportunities for personal growth are essential for students’ health and wellbeing.

What’s more, without these attributes, students are prone to high levels of stress, anxiety and even injury.

Performing arts students study in highly competitive environments and are under pressure to give their best performance each and every time. As a result, conservatoire programmes are physically, mentally and emotionally demanding throughout the academic year – not just at exam time or during periods of heavy coursework.

But researchers working on the Musical Impact project have found that, despite evidence that taking steps to improve health and wellbeing can enhance performance, many students did not think it was vital to their learning. So, how do we persuade highly motivated and talented students to engage with this agenda when training for their profession?

Musical Impact has created ‘Fit to Perform’: an initiative to help institutions and individuals address eight areas of health and wellbeing. It is being disseminated through the Healthy Conservatoires Network, where people can share best practice and ideas to change attitudes towards health and wellbeing in the performing arts.

Postgraduate research

The Musical Impact project inspired me to consider the health and wellbeing of another group of students – those doing postgraduate research (PGR) degrees.

PGR students are also highly motivated and under pressure to work to the best of their ability in a competitive environment. Their academic year is unstructured – no terms or semesters, no vacations or reading weeks – and they are assimilated into academic research culture, often working long (sometimes antisocial) hours. They may also be expected to write papers or monographs for publication, or present at conferences.

Some study within a cohort, others work in more solitary settings. Either way, their research environment and supervisory relationships are key factors in their student experience.

And they are driven to succeed: the 2015 Postgraduate Research Experience Survey found that more than 60 per cent of PGR students aspire to a career in academia. So the stakes are high!

A 2014 Guardian article on mental health issues in academia and a more recent blogpost on the psychological cost of a PhD illustrate the impact that work-related stress can have on PGR students.

And these stories really struck a chord with me: my PhD was an all-consuming endeavour that occupied my every waking thought for more than three years and I had almost no life outside the lab. At the time, I assumed this was normal and didn’t feel I could talk to anyone when I found myself overwhelmed and struggling to cope with the demands of my studies.

Mind how you go!

Thankfully, it is becoming easier for people to talk more openly about mental health; and many universities are broadening and rebranding the support services available to their staff and students.

Last year, Universities UK published guidance to encourage and inform further developments within institutions to promote and support the mental wellbeing of staff and students.

With the Musical Impact project demonstrating the benefits of actively engaging with health and wellbeing to reduce stress and enhance performance, I wonder what strategies we can take for PGR students and other groups within our higher education institutions.

Could engaging PGR students and supervisors with their health and wellbeing help to build resilience and benefit their academic performance?