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Removing the Stigma around Mental Health in academia

Mental health is not a new phenomenon, but as we learn more about how it works, how it affects us and how to address it, becomes more obvious to us and more easily identifiable when it takes a turn. Academia, being the demanding and stressful environment that it is, can take a particularly immense toll on a researcher’s mental health, which can sometimes be difficult to address. This could be due to a number of reasons, but it’s time for us to reappraise academia’s relationship with mental health and openly approach these very real problems.

Understanding how perfectionism can be detrimental

The complications around academia and mental health arise from many sources, but a major one is the issue of perfectionism. This is multifaceted.

  • For one, academics are often looked toward to have answers and will feel pressured to have them, even when they don’t. That puts the onus on the academic to hold themselves to an impossibly high standard, which will inevitably result in disappointment and anger when that cannot be achieved.
  • Another aspect of perfectionism is the distinct tendency to ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ within any competitive environment with high demands on performance, which can often result in a hesitation to be open about personal struggles. 
  • Combined, these elements exacerbate the overall pressure to hold in stressors to the extent that mental health issues manifest and slowly chip away at your productivity, confidence and, ultimately, your happiness.

A related phenomenon is imposter syndrome. Learn more about it here: Imposter Syndrome in academia

Realising that it’s fine to ‘struggle’ – and taking help for it

Academia can be competitive, and in your initial time, you may end up struggling. On that note, it is important to emphasise that it is fine to struggle – in fact, it’s usually expected in any high-pressure environment.

  • With growing awareness of researcher wellbeing, an increasing number of universities are establishing spaces to support their researchers. Take advantage of the help that is provided to you as early on as possible – in the first instance that you feel might be the onset of more major struggles. Being open and honest about this can make a significant difference to your wellbeing.
  • Also, make sure you inform your line manager or principal investigator (PI) that you are struggling. It is part of their job to support you in those times. It is important that they are aware of what is going on for you in your professional and personal life, and to expect less from you while you work on yourself.

Speaking up about wellbeing

Academia is becoming more amenable to supporting people who are struggling with their health, be it mental or physical, but there is more work to be done.

If you are struggling, don’t be afraid to let your voice be heard. It is important that your workplace hears about people’s experience of it. If it does not support your mental wellbeing, recognise that this is not a safe or healthy environment to be working in. University departments, your research group and your line manager should all be learning what it means to provide the correct support. So, make sure you communicate what that is for you.

End note

Mental health has taken centre stage in many debates centred on wellbeing. With our increasing understanding of neurodiversity – the notion of us being ‘wired’ to experience life in myriad ways – it has become vital that we learn to handle the growing pressures of an ever-increasingly competitive workplace, whatever someone’s mental makeup might be.

  • Take your mental health into your own hands and seek help as soon as necessary, not later. There are now plenty of resources online (see here and here) that you can refer to and be sure to also seek out the support services available at your institution. 
  • Make sure to provide feedback to others about what might help you, as not everyone can be immediately expected to know how to help.


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