Understanding mental health issues within the conservation community

Period: September 2017 – December 2022

Funder: Natural Environment Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership

DPhil Overview: My PhD focuses on links between conservation and human health, particularly mental health.

Research team members: 

  • Thomas Pienkowski (PhD Researcher, University of Oxford)
  • E.J. Milner-Gulland (Professor, University of Oxford)
  • Aidan Keane (Senior Lecturer, Edinburgh University)
  • Caroline Hickman (Lecturer and PhD Researcher, University of Bath)
  • Emiel de Lange (PhD Researcher, Edinburgh University)
  • Gergő Baranyi (Postdoctoral Researcher, Edinburgh University)
  • Izak Smit (Science Manager, South African National Parks)
  • Mirjam Hazenbosch (PhD Researcher, University of Oxford)
  • Munib Khanyari (PhD Researcher, University of Oxford, Bristol University, Nature Conservation Foundation)
  • Roshni Ravi (Project Coordinator, Nature Conservation Foundation)
  • Sarah Papworth (Senior Lecturer, Royal Holloway)
  • Sofia Castelló y Tickell (PhD Researcher, University of Oxford)
  • Stephanie Brittain (Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Oxford)
  • Vena Kapoor (Programme Coordinator, Nature Conservation Foundation)
  • William N.S. Arlidge (Postdoctoral Researcher, Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries)

Outline of research: Conservation is often seen as a crisis discipline, dominated by negative outcomes and stories. It is also a tough profession in which people work in difficult circumstances, sometimes in different cultures to their own, and with limited resourcing. There is concern that the negative framing of conservation and the difficulty of effecting change could cause burnout, psychological distress, and disengagement among conservationists. This may harm the mental health and well-being of conservationists and the long-term sustainability of conservation itself.

At the moment, it is unclear how prevalent psychological distress is amongst conservationists, and if negative conservation framings and the difficulty of positive change increases the risk of psychological distress. Similarly, it is also unclear if organisations consider mental health to be an issue within the conservation sector, and the steps they are taking to address it. This project, conducted by the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science (ICCS), will investigate these topics.


  1. How prevalent is psychological distress among conservationists?
  2. Do the perceived challenges of conservation increase psychological distress?
  3. Does optimism reduce the impact of these perceived challenges on psychological distress?
  4. How aware are conservation organisations of potential issues surrounding mental health, and what are they doing to support staff?

Summary of planned activities: 

The study will collect data from a broad range of conservation professionals, working globally. It has three components. First, a broadly distributed online survey, aiming for as many, and as diverse set of respondents as possible worldwide. Secoundly, a targetted off-line survey within selected organisations to understand predictors of psychological distress within a given institutional setting. Finally, a qualitative study in which managers at different levels in a set of organisations are interviewed to understand their personal and institutional experience of, and approaches towards, psychological distress in their staff.


Learn more about Tom's PhD research here