Mental Health and Academia
Happy New Year everyone! The last two years were pretty stressful, not only in academia, but overall. While I was in my holidays, I was thinking how I want to proceed with this blog. I decided, that I want to add another focus to my website: mental health.
So first things first: I am no mental health specialist nor do I suffer from any form of mental stress or illness myself. I am therefore not really qualified for handing out any advice and I won’t! But what I want to do, is to make aware and start talking about it. Mental health issues occur in many forms and places, but considering the overall theme of this blog, I want to talk about mental health in academia.
What mental health issues?
In academia, mental health issues can appear in any stage of the career, whether you being a student, lecturer or professor. Clinical depression, anxiety, burnout and other issues are common. In addition, people affected by these symptoms are feeling more and more alone, as mental health issues are still marginalised.
Most of the time, universities offer help for the affected ones, but they rarely offer courses or tutoring on how to prevent mental health issues in the first place. Academia is stressful for everyone, but admiting it often takes courage. Lecturers and professors are expected to deal with this by themselves and learn by doing basically mistakes:
In other words, we learn by making mistakes that we – and to some extent our students and staff – directly or indirectly end up paying for.
This can be attributed to the lack of training of supervisors dealing with the management of students, whether it is in teaching, projects or career council . So basically, the situation is not developing well in academia. In addition, people of colour or other marginalised groups are statistically more affected:
In short, we are in the midst of a profound and extensive mental health crisis throughout academia. No one is immune, although the potential mental health risks of participating in academia are compounded on an order of magnitude for faculty and students of color or from other marginalized groups […].
So what to do?
An article written by Adam P. Johnson and Rebecca J. Lester lists some advice on how to conquer the struggle in academia, how to recognise that there is actually a problem and what forms of therapy or help you could seek. Although this article is written for an American audience, I think the general ideas are worthwhile .
The first thing they suggest is to get organised and as you might know, I am a big supporter of this. I contribute a big portion of this blog to getting organised (see for example my Tray System) and will continue doing so as I truly believe, that organisation can actually relieve the stress in our professions. The second tip is to build networks. Depending on the stage of your career, this can be different things: Student Bodies, Faculty Interest Groups or even Sport Groups. Whatever meets your interests, a good network is the basis of communication, which in turn can be a big help.
Something I also agree with is setting boundaries. Working at a university can create the pressure to work overtime or to be accessible 24/7. This is not a good habit and we have to learn how to take brakes and turn off our connectivity. A good habit on the other hand is to familiarise yourself with your university resources. Most universities offer mental health support or training in mindfulness. Every person is different and needs individual help. The most important part here is to seek help, if you need to.
This article is only a very general approximation to mental health issues in academia. Of course the topic is way deeper and complex than this, but it is a start. I really want to familiarise myself with this topic as I teach and supervise students too. I want to be able to offer help or at least some pointers where to go. The most important part on my side however is to create a save space for the students to be able to actually come to me to tell me about their struggle. As I said in the beginning, I am no mental health expert and have no struggles myself. I am very thankful for this.
Additional article by Nature: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-04998-1