Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Addressing the mental health problem in academia
The Guardian UK is publishing an insightful series this May called “Mental health: a university crisis”, as part of Mental Health Month. Although mental health issues for undergraduates are the focus of a variety of different services and programs at most universities, the Guardian includes a unique focus on the issues of academics—graduate students, postdocs, professors and other researchers—for whom it seems that mental health issues are disproportionately common.
The whole series is an important read, and comes at the issue from many different perspectives. A recent survey of university employees not surprisingly found that academics have higher stress levels than other university employees, which they attribute to heavy workloads (!), lack of support (from the department or otherwise), and particularly for early career researchers, feelings of isolation. One particularly insightful piece (with the tagline "I drink too much and haven't had a good night's sleep since last year. Why? Research") argues that academics have particularly unique problems leading to mental health issues. There are typical issues that many high stress jobs include—the ever-regenerating todo list, and the many teaching, research, and service tasks that academics need to accomplish. But academia also seems to attract a high proportion of intense, perfectionistic, passionate people willing to go the extra mile (and encouraged to, given the difficult job market). Worse, research is a creative, even emotional activity – there are highs and lows and periods of intense work that come at the expense of everything else. Ideas are personal, and so the separation between person and research is very slim. The result is often a lack of work-life balance that might produce academic success, but strains mental health. Mental health issues further have dire implications for most research activities, since the symptoms – loss of motivation, concentration and clarity of thought – affect crucial academic skills.
If such issues are so common in academia (and there’s a form of anxiety ubiquitous among graduate students, the imposter syndrome; other common illnesses include anxiety, depression, and panic attacks), why are most of the lecturers and postdocs writing about their mental health experiences for the Guardian choosing to be anonymous? It still seems common to simply downplay or hide problems with stress and mental illness (in the linked study, 61% of academics with mental health problems say their colleagues are unaware of their problems). This may be a reflection of the fact that academia is focused individual performance and individual reputation. Colleagues choose to work with you, to invite you to their department, to hire you, based in no small part on your reputation. Admitting to having suffered from mental illness can feel like adding an obstacle to the already difficult academic landscape. For many, admitting to struggling can feel like failure, particularly since everyone around them seems to be managing the harsh conditions just fine (whether or not that is really true). Academic workdays have less structure than most, which can be isolating. Academics can keep unpredictable hours, disappear for days, send emails at 2 am, sleep at work, and be unkempt and exhausted without much comment; as a result, it can be difficult to identify those colleagues who are at risk (compared to those who are simply unconventional :-) ).
It will be interesting to see where the Guardian series goes. Mental health issues in academia are in many ways the same as those that have affected women and minorities looking for inclusion in academia – subtle comments or stigma, lack of practical support. I remember once hearing a department chair disgusted a co-author who had failed to respond to emails because they were “certifiably crazy; in a mental hospital”. No doubt that was exactly the response the co-author was hoping to avoid. More subtle but more common is lip-service to work-life balance that is counterbalanced by proud references to how hard one or one’s lab works. There is nothing wrong with working hard, but maybe we should temper our praise of sleeping in the lab, coming in every holiday and weekend. It happens and it may be necessary, but is that the badge of honour we really want to claim? It would be sad if the nature of academia, its competitiveness and atmosphere of masochism (“my students are in the lab on Christmas”) limits progress.