Real Facts You Never Knew About Mental Health in Academia
Workdays that stretch around the clock. Ending up teaching 165 Master’s students and doing bureaucratic tasks when you actually took this post doc position to do research. Pressures, competition, working on a string of poorly paid short-term contracts. Days when you feel like you can either choose academia or your sanity, not both.
As a clinical psychologist who obtained my degree while working a full-time day job and is now working part-time in career coaching while devoting rest of my time to paper-writing endeavours, I have seen both sides of the coin. And that coin is made of pressure, competition, rejections, unstable work environments, poorly paid temporary jobs, conflicting and competing work demands and a working culture that rewards working around the clock.
Estimates of the prevalence of mental health issues in academia vary from 30% to 50% in different countries, among everyone from PhD students to professors. It is also known that people in universities grossly under-report their mental health issues – while, at the same time, working in one of the most taxing and challenging work environments.
Researchers in social media are experts at making jokes about the hyper-competitive environment, the constant stress of searching for funding and submitting papers, the exposure to rejections and criticism. For example, just take a look at “Shit Academics Say” on Facebook or Twitter to get an impression. But the academic humour covers a darker stream of suffering. Some years ago, physicist Oliver Rosten published a paper in conformal algebra and shared the story of his friend Francis Dolan in the acknowledgments. Dolan committed a suicide due to the pressures of the post doc system, claimed Rosten. He had to submit his paper to different journals three times before it was accepted with the acknowledgments section unchanged. The community pressure to separate “life” from “science” in a manner that keeps the difficult conversations swept under the carpet is strong.
Research indicates that even if the causal connections between the characteristics of academia and researcher mental health are fuzzy, it seems likely that it is at least partly the university environment that causes stress and other mental health issues, and it is not simply the case that only people who are vulnerable to mental health issues are drawn to academia. At the same time, it is relatively clear that academia is inviting in and rewarding people who are demanding of themselves, pedantic, hardworking, and ambitious. It is a chicken and egg problem, but either way, a change is needed.
Recent years have seen increasing research and discussion within and outside academia, among policy makers and scholars about the mental wellbeing of academics. It is important that we do not tackle the issue only at the individual level; we must remember the responsibilities of universities, such as implementing risk management policies. However, next I am going to take the perspective of an individual academic, trying to combine the viewpoints of many if not most groups in academia from PhD students to post docs, possibly excluding experiences specific to other professionals such as secretaries. I hope to provide some ideas on how to survive the jungle of academia without damaging your most important resource in life – mental health.
Let’s Play Mythbusters
Many of us harbor and live by myths about academia and research without even knowing it, myths we acquired from discourses both outside and within university. To mention one such myth, there are academics who actually, more or less subconsciously, believe that research and academia always includes suffering; that some level of burnout is just an integral part of the institution. If something sets you up for a life where you don’t take action to avoid suffering, it is idealizing suffering as a sign that you are doing the right thing and adjusting to the environmental norms. Of course academia is not the only institution where replying to emails at 23.30 or preventing yourself from collapsing on top of your computer by consuming liters of energy drinks can be morbidly glorified, but it certainly is one of them.
Academics tend to identify strongly with their research, department, and/or position. Equating yourself with your work predisposes you to constant ups and downs in your self-esteem and makes you vulnerable to the belief that when you fail at something, you are a failure as a person. Separating your self-worth from work and understanding that failure is an integral part of research – from failing lab experiments to rejections to grant applications – is a starting point in learning the name of the game. Take the hit and get back up, not allowing yourself to imagine the hit has anything to do with your value as a person.
University is also an institution with a strong hero cult – everyone’s field has some rockstar names that are put on a pedestal. The hierarchy and hyper-competition cause people to believe that one has to be incredibly intelligent to make it in the academia. This can induce impossible pressures that are not doing anyone any good. Instead of worshipping the ones who “made it” and constantly comparing ourselves to others, we should perhaps talk more about other kinds of virtues that students and scholars should strive for: persistence, networking skills, motivation, curiosity. These virtues take you to places where “natural born intelligence” (a notion worthy of being questioned and criticized in itself) does not.
Another myth that academics are invited to live by is that of a lonely rider who tackles everything on his/her own. Even if most research and other academic duties are done all alone in your scholarly chamber, you do not win this race alone. In the long run, collaboration is just as important, if not more important, than competition. In keeping your sanity, you need the support of colleagues and supervisors and you need to feel that you are a part of a community.
The Perfectionistic Workaholic – the Stereotypical Scholar?
Academia is an environment that seems to attract people with tendencies such as perfectionism, (self)criticism, and workaholism: people who set high goals and do not accept a 99% performance but aim for 150%! I argue that universities should offer a class of basic psychological survival skills for all scholars. If I were to teach such a course, I would cover topics such as learning to look at the big picture instead of getting entangled with the details and learning to accept your limits. I would teach about setting boundaries and working smarter, not harder. I would talk about the importance of not comparing yourself to others too much and of stopping self-criticism that is too harsh. Sometimes, academics use harsh language against each other – occasionally poorly covering this as academic debate – but I think the rudest and most critical voice is the one they have in their own mind.
The challenge is that to succeed in your academic endeavours, a healthy dose of high ambition, commitment, willingness to look at the details, taking a problem-oriented approach, and perfectionism is needed. How to balance these with accepting your limits, giving yourself and others credit for what has already been achieved, and looking at the big picture of your life is a challenge on another level. I think what we need – and indeed, what we are already witnessing in many parts of the society – is a revolution of kindness and acceptance. Also in academia, we need more people nurturing an environment of togetherness and optimism and encouraging open and honest conversations; an environment where one can truly be one’s own best friend and not one’s worst enemy.
Having seen dozens and dozens of depressed and burnt-out academics in my sessions over the years, one thing emerges more clearly than anything else. Life is short and it is worth thinking about how we use it while we are alive. The ultimate satisfaction in life does not come from any concrete external achievements, such as increasing your impact factor or getting that professor position. Academia is one of those environments where there is always another level to jump onto in the game – the next paper to write, the next funding to get. If you do not pay attention, you can easily end up living in the loop of constant dissatisfaction, keeping your eye fixed on what you have not achieved instead of what you have already done.
Balancing work and wellbeing is a process, not a single act. The mental health of researchers needs to become a priority in academia, because without mental balance, we have nothing – no research, no teaching. You can start this change today by not hiding your own bad days and struggles and by being on the lookout for a colleague or student who might be needing a kind word today.
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