Mini-series: Encouraging SolidariTEA amongst PhD students

Photo credit: Pixabay, milkyway 4567, CC0

In this mental health and wellbeing mini-series post, Dr Louise Horsfall, a Senior Lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences, showcase the SolidariTEA initiative, which is a supportive, confidential and relaxed coffee morning for PhD students to discuss problems affecting their work or personal life…

In any professional environment it can take courage to ask for help with the technical aspects of a project. When in higher education, work and life often seem to blend together, making it difficult to separate the two and get support for the non-technical aspects when needed. In an effort to provide the simplest of interventions – a meeting for all – I established SolidariTEA to confront the complex problem of student mental health and wellbeing, with the help from the Student Partnership Agreement funding. This is a fortnightly coffee morning for PhD students, with facilitated peer-support. It is a designated time and space for students to discuss difficulties outwith the technical aspects of their research with supportive staff and fellow students, where no one feels a burden because that’s what we have all chosen to ring-fence this time to do.

We have some quite regular attendees, while others have turned up just the once. It’s a relaxed affair where we chat through the stresses and strains of life and work, and discuss our own coping mechanisms. Nobody attending is trained to help with mental health problems, so we make sure that numerous other sources of support are clearly signposted. Examples of regular discussion topics include career uncertainty, supervisory relationships, family and personal illness. These are worries that occur at some point to most people but talking through such issues with others is often a key part of recognising that, “it’s not just me”, and that “it’s maybe not such a big deal”.

At meetings we share our frustrations and learn from the awesomeness of others. We supply tea, coffee, biscuits and a couple of staff volunteers to provide a warm welcome and encourage relaxed conversation. It’s simple and it’s effective. We’ve received great feedback from students and, while numbers are often quite small (usually about five), it’s worthwhile if it makes the difference to just one. 

I can’t remember there being any reference to mental health during my first PhD supervisor-training course. That’s not to say it wasn’t there, but as a new academic I received an awful lot of information in a very short space of time. When I refreshed my training five years later, mental health certainly was prominent in the course. It’s a problem that we’re becoming increasingly aware of yet the number of colleagues I now know of who have supported students through episodes of mental illness still surprises me.

However, my reasons for initiating SolidarTEA stem from my own personal experience. I knew that I would be on maternity leave when my new PhD student started but the funders didn’t want to postpone the start date and I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity of an additional researcher in my group. I was on maternity leave when my new student began to struggle with her mental health, and I was still on leave when she first needed professional help. My reasoned mind knows the statistics and the risk factors and yet, highlighted by my absence, I also felt that there should have been more pastoral support on offer. So I chose to address this gap and create a positive from the experience.

SolidariTEA started at King’s Buildings for the School of Biological Sciences but the communal spaces and ownership of time that used to facilitate supportive conversation are being reduced throughout the university and higher education in general. I’m therefore incredibly pleased that SolidariTEA has expanded to other sites and schools within the University. We are still perfecting the format, with a number of improvements having recently been introduced to widen participation.

Students, you are most welcome to join us! And fellow staff members, please do encourage students to come along, and please consider volunteering as a facilitator, no matter what career stage you’re at, or what your job at the university is – our facilitators include administrative, technical and research staff. Hearing from our amazing students and staff about how they have overcome adversity is an inspirational experience for all.

To find out when and where the next SolidariTEA sessions are, please visit their wiki site.

Read these blog posts to learn about similar initiatives across the University:

Louise Horsfall

Louise is a Senior Lecturer and the Programme Director of the MSc in Synthetic Biology and Biotechnology, in the School of Biological Sciences. Her research applies synthetic biology and biotechnology to develop solutions to environmental problems by reusing waste products. She is the elected co-chair of the Bioengineering and Bioprocessing Section of the European Federation of Biotechnology, Associate Director of the University’s Centre for Science at Extreme Conditions and holds an EPSRC fellowship in Engineering for Sustainability and Resilience.

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