Understanding well-being and mental health amongst higher degree research students – a framework for change

Dr Heidi Ellemor1

1La Trobe University Student Union, Upper Agora West, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Australia

Increasing evidence points to the extent and impact of well-being and mental health problems amongst higher degree research students, both internationally and within Australia. This research paints an alarming picture about the potential impact of current academic conditions on mental health and more broadly, student well-being (for example Levecque et al 2017). As staff providing support services to research students in the higher education sector, we see the way in which student well-being and more serious mental health issues effect and are affected by the research student experience. We know enough to tell us that the well-being of research students and their mental health is a significant problem requiring further attention, that our current organisational context is not helping (and indeed is a key contributor to the problem) and that our current support structures are not sufficient to mitigate the impact and provide the level of support that is required. It is in this context that we have begun work at La Trobe University to try to better understand how these problems are manifesting themselves within the higher degree research student population, how this intersects with the organisational context, and what we can do to change this. These are big challenges and we are only beginning to address them. In this paper we will report on the initial steps La Trobe University and the La Trobe University Student Union are taking to tackle this problem. This presentation will also explore ways in which universities and student unions can work together to improve support services, the student experience and educational outcomes for research students.


Heidi is a postgraduate student advocate at the La Trobe University Student Union. Her current role includes providing advice and support to postgraduate coursework and research students, developing students’ understanding of their rights and responsibilities and working collaboratively with the university to help address key issues. She is particularly interested in the challenges faced by higher degree research students and in working collaboratively with the University to improve support for research students. Prior to joining the LTSU advocacy team in 2012, Heidi worked as an academic, researching and teaching in Australia and New Zealand.


The Australian and New Zealand Student Services Association Inc. (ANZSSA) is a professional association for people with an interest in the role of support services in post secondary education.

For more information, please visit ANZSSA website by anzssa.com.


ISANA International Education Association is the representative body for professionals in Australia and New Zealand who work in international student services, advocacy, teaching and policy development in international education.

For more information, please visit the ISANA website at www.isana.org.au.

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