Successful online seminar about Mental health strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic and more resources for doctoral researchers

In the midst of the Coronavirus lockdown of 2020, the first online seminar from the newly formed Mental Health Working Group of the Leibniz PhD Network was held online. Many people had already been under some form of quarantine for a few weeks, and it was clear that many junior researchers have been struggling with social isolation, confinement and uncertainty under the pandemic. 

Recently, it has become more and more evident that there is an ongoing mental health crisis in academia. For example, a recent survey of 50,000 graduate students in the UK showed that 86% reported significant levels of anxiety. The current pandemic is compounding existing issues.

The aim of the online seminar was to:

  1. Raise awareness about potential stressors triggered during the pandemic in the academic community.
  2. Provide tools and strategies to help researchers cope with anxiety, motivational issues, depression and other potential stressors related to working in academia under the current pandemic.

In the online seminar, we were fortunate to have an amazing and international line-up of guest speakers share their perspectives:

  • Dr. Desiree Dickerson (Academic Mental Health & Well-Being Consultant)
    Topic: Mental health and well-being resources during COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Dr. Nicola Byrom (Lecturer in psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neurosciences at King’s College London)
    Topic: Managing anxieties and low mood during social isolation.
  • Moderator: Dr. Elliot Brown (Neuroscientist, Scientific Advisor and Mental Health Advocate at Charité Hospital & Health Care)

Here is a recording of the online seminar which is available at anytime online:

We summerized some highlights from the online seminar:

From Dr. Desiree Dickerson

[su_expand more_text=”More” less_text=”

“Don’t be afraid to ask, and don’t be afraid of the answer that you get, you are not a trained professional” “It can be as simple as ‘how are you coping right now?’” “It can be helpful to just say what you see, like I noticed you seem distracted right now, how are you doing?” “You might be the only person who has asked them in weeks.” “In that moment, your job is just to listen and to acknowledge what they’re saying.” “Offer to touch base with them again in a couple of days.”
“Often when we’re feeling psychologically distressed it can impair our abilities to seek out the resources that we need.”

” link_color=”#383838″ more_icon=”icon: chevron-down” less_icon=”icon: chevron-up”]**How to start a conversation about wellbeing?**[/su_expand]

[su_expand more_text=”More” less_text=”

“Organize some way that reduces the pressure.” “Some of these online situations are actually causing people more stress rather than less stress.”
“Make it easy to connect in a way that doesn’t ask a lot of the other person.”

“Perhaps it’s a shut up and write session where you get 3/4/5 of you and organise a block of 60 or 90 minutes where you simply get together on Zoom and you work together in each other’s presence.” “Or a virtual 20 minute coffee break.”

” link_color=”#383838″ more_icon=”icon: chevron-down” less_icon=”icon: chevron-up”]** What if someone is suffering from loneliness?**[/su_expand]

[su_expand more_text=”More” less_text=”

“We set massive expectations for ourselves” “But with so much of that cognitive and emotional energy being consumed by everything else that’s going on, many of us are simply not at our normal productive best.” These expectations “are adding to our stress and adding to our tension.” “Ask yourself who’s setting that expectation, who’s driving your workload, and how can you make it more reasonable.”

“Break down tasks into super achievable really bite-sized tasks.” “Celebrate the wins.”

” link_color=”#383838″ more_icon=”icon: chevron-down” less_icon=”icon: chevron-up”]**Struggling with work overload**[/su_expand]

[su_expand more_text=”More” less_text=”“Keep in mind that our supervisors are dealing with a significant level of stress and responsibility right now,” and “it’s critically important to consider that…we are entitled in many regards to push back, to protect our own time and to set boundaries. If something feels like too much right now, then we need to say so.”” link_color=”#383838″ more_icon=”icon: chevron-down” less_icon=”icon: chevron-up”]**Communicating with our supervisor and setting boundaries**[/su_expand] [su_expand more_text=”More” less_text=”“So how do we prioritize our wellbeing?” “It’s really as simple as setting a solid foundation.” 

“Be the scientist when looking into your own lives.” “Call into question your habits, and the way that you work, and the way that you think.” “I would challenge you to really genuinely experiment with prioritizing wellbeing in your life, and see if it makes a difference.”

“Key…is managing our sleep.” “See what happens if you go to sleep at the same time every day and you get up at the same time every day for one month. Commit to it.” 

“Get up and move as often as you can.” “Prioritize exercise in your day in whatever form it takes.”

“The other two for laying that foundation are your nutrition and your social connection.” 

” link_color=”#383838″ more_icon=”icon: chevron-down” less_icon=”icon: chevron-up”]**How to boost wellbeing?**[/su_expand] [su_expand more_text=”More” less_text=”

“The way we talk to ourselves is often way harsher than we would talk to our friends or family or children.” “So really go easy on yourselves and try and talk to yourselves as you would talk to a friend who is struggling right now.”

“Try a couple simple reframes.” “Shifting from ‘I can’t do this’ to ‘I can’t do this, yet’ or ‘I can’t do this right now.’” “Then we start to seek out the resources that we need.” Stop and “acknowledge that many people are struggling just like we are right now.”

” link_color=”#383838″ more_icon=”icon: chevron-down” less_icon=”icon: chevron-up”]**Self-compassion is key**[/su_expand]

From Dr. Hendrik Huthoff

[su_expand more_text=”More” less_text=”

“We can see this (COVID-19 pandemic) as an opportunity to bring some things to the forefront.” “I think mental health is a topic that can also benefit from receiving more attention these days.”

“I very much recognise that the most difficult step is to admit to yourself that you’ve got an issue and that you need help.” “Once you’ve taken that step, things do get better.”

“This time can be used as an opportunity to address those issues if you feel that you need support.”

“If you think you’re running around in circles and you don’t see a way out, well there is a way out, and the way out is…communication and allowing yourself to recognize that you might have an issue and that you can find help for it.”

“One reason to be optimistic is that I think the PhD and possibly also the postdoc is a type of profession that is perhaps a little bit more resilient than other trades to the situation we find ourselves in.”

” link_color=”#383838″ more_icon=”icon: chevron-down” less_icon=”icon: chevron-up”]**Positive side of things – taking this time as an opportunity for reflection**[/su_expand]

[su_expand more_text=”More” less_text=”“I often have PhDs and also postdocs coming to me and saying I have this and that issue with my supervisor, how do I approach it. And my first question is always ‘have you talked about it with your supervisor?’ Nine times out of ten, that person will say no.” “I think you will probably be surprised in most cases how willing people are to support you.”” link_color=”#383838″ more_icon=”icon: chevron-down” less_icon=”icon: chevron-up”]**Talk openly with your supervisor – you may be surprised**[/su_expand]

From Dr. Nicola Byrom

[su_expand more_text=”More” less_text=”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you share with others that actually you need a bit more time and a bit more space and you’re finding this difficult, that actually you get a message back that says ‘me too, this is hard.’”

“In sharing with others that you need more space, or more support, or more help, more time, you’re giving them that window to do the same as well.”

“It would be really strange if you weren’t struggling right now. It is totally expected.”

” link_color=”#383838″ more_icon=”icon: chevron-down” less_icon=”icon: chevron-up”]**Talking to others about how we are struggling**[/su_expand]

[su_expand more_text=”More” less_text=”

“Our lives have all merged into this soup of work/life confusion.” “My key suggestion is to try and build a sense of routine into your daily lives” “In building that routine you reduce the number of choices you’re having to make, which makes it easier to sustain motivation and to keep going”

“There’s a bit of a feeling that because we’re at home we should be able to be super productive, and that’s just not realistic”

“I think one of the best ways to try and be more productive is to reduce your expectations and give yourself smaller chunks of time to work, and more chunks of time to unwind, to do things you enjoy.”

“The five ways to wellbeing. These are to give, to connect, to notice, to learn and to keep active.”

” link_color=”#383838″ more_icon=”icon: chevron-down” less_icon=”icon: chevron-up”]**Tips for wellbeing**[/su_expand]

[su_expand more_text=”More” less_text=”“If we want to make mental health better amongst our community we need to take those first proactive steps to think about what can I do for my peers, how can I support others as well as how can I look after myself.”” link_color=”#383838″ more_icon=”icon: chevron-down” less_icon=”icon: chevron-up”]**Peer support – your peers need you**[/su_expand]


Here is a list of free online resources that are available to use right now. In an act of solidarity, many companies are now offering their services for free, so it is a great time to take advantage of what is out there. 

There is a LOT of information listed below and within the links, so if you do not want to browse, but feel like some immediate support might help you, then check out the links numbered 1-3 before browsing the rest (**check these first):

  1. To get support from a real person/people online, for FREE, NOW:

** Hotline and free (only during pandemic) online video consultation from registered clinical psychologists (Maybe German only – ask first in consultation).

** Free (only during pandemic) online one-to-one psychological therapy and online resources (Maybe German only – ask first in consultation).

The Help Hub has been set up to support individuals who find themselves with limited contact due to the pandemic – speak directly to counsellors or volunteers.

Connect online to wellbeing professionals (counsellors and coaches) – targeted to people living away from their home countries – available only from May-June.

Live, virtual interactive sessions led by certified experts available multiple times every day of the week, on different topics.

Live therapist led classes and discussions on different topics.

A Daily Dose of Togetherness online meetings every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday – a reflection from a guest speaker and a chance to connect and interact in small groups.

COVID-19 parental support group: a therapist led-discussion alongside other parents to find support and build community.

  1. Free mobile apps to support your mental wellbeing, NOW:

** Here is a great list of several mental wellbeing apps that are offering free services especially during the pandemic.

  1. Or, if you think that reading or watching something and getting exercises or tools to implement into your life right now would be helpful: 

** Excellent resource specifically for postgraduate research students to support your wellbeing, learning and research. Here you can find research, top tips, videos and downloadable action plans (from our guest speaker, Dr. Nicola Byrom).

Free online self-help e-health modules specific to the pandemic on topics like home, office, daily schedule, stress, insecurity and loneliness (German only).

Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry have developed a self-help cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) based program especially for the pandemic.

A short guide on living with worry and anxiety amidst global uncertainty (14 pages) – this gives lots of evidence-based practical advice and exercises that you could start using right now.

A simple guide for practical steps and exercises for responding effectively to the Corona crisis, using the principles of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

A Practical Toolkit for You and Your Family – mindfulness exercises for parents and their children.

Some helpful videos from psychotherapists and counsellors on how to cope with the pandemic.

Simple and easy to follow tips, with videos, from the UK’s NHS on dealing with anxiety during the pandemic.

Some tips and exercises from Positive Psychology, an evidence-based method originally developed by Martin Seligman: 

More General Resources

Articles, videos about advice and support on mental wellbeing:

World Health Organization (WHO) Guidelines for maintaining mental wellbeing during the pandemic.

Seven tips to manage your mental wellbeing from Desiree Dickerson.

I’m an academic, not a therapist. How do I support my group members’ mental health and well-being right now? A cheat sheet for checking in” – An article from Dr. Desiree Dickerson.

Student Minds – the Uk’s student mental health charity (founded by our guest speaker, Dr. Nicola Byrom).

SMARTEN, a large national research network focusing on student mental health in higher education (led by our guest speaker, Dr. Nicola Byrom)-

The Positive Psychology Center – a huge amount of readings and videos about the practice of Positive Psychology.

Q&A session on mental health and the COVID-19 from an expert at the WHO.

Recording of a webinar from Kings College London on maintaining health and wellbeing during the pandemic.

Lists of more resources:

Great list of online health resources (many Germany specific) from the Bundesministerium für Gesundheit.

A great list of COVID-19 articles and resources on mental health, stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, wellbeing and productivity put together by Dr. Desiree Dickerson (updated daily).

List of research and opinion papers, websites, policy documents, information handouts.

List of resources from the Blueprint Group Newsletter.

Open-source list of online mental wellbeing resources.


Regulations on video medical appointments in Germany.

Anxiety free news (German only).

From the Members of the Working Group Mental Health of the Leibniz PhD Network: Dolly Montaño, Elliot Clayton Brown, Marcel Rechlitz, Stefanie Do and Irene Broer

Leave a Reply