Why your voice matters: Welcome to Voices of Academia

In the last several years, issues relating to mental health and well-being in academia have attracted increasing attention from researchers and in the popular press. Although scholars have long recognised that academia can be a stressful and demanding profession, it has been argued that the current situation is so serious that it should be described as a “crisis”.  Both university staff and students are reporting high levels of stress and burnout, both of which can have serious consequences for mental health and well-being.  In a recent review of the scholarly literature, work by Guthrie et al. (2017)  found that “proportions of both university staff and postgraduate students with a risk of having or developing a mental health problem, based on self-reported evidence, were generally higher than for other working populations.”

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Ripping Off the Band-Aid: The Struggle of Asking for Help by Lauren Cuthbert

Content warning: Depression, pet death

I’m a solitary person by nature. I prefer to spend my time in my own company, watching a film or a TV show, or crocheting to keep my hands busy. I don’t mind being in my own head – in fact, for the most part, I prefer it. I wasn’t fazed by lockdown: being told to stay indoors didn’t substantially alter my daily routine, and I figured I wouldn’t have much trouble adjusting to the state of the world if I was already used to spending the majority of my time in my room. Back in April of 2020, I was chatting with a friend who asked me how I was coping with lockdown. At the time, I’d been unemployed since graduating from my MA five months previously; I was in the process of applying for jobs, but also considering undertaking a PhD. I said, and I remember it exactly, “My life literally has not changed at all, so I’m fine.”

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Natural Highs and Crushing Lows on my way up the Academic Ladder by Anonymous

TW: Suicide

One afternoon in the summer of 2008: Boom! I found myself flat on the grass after being tackled by a friend during an outdoor student party. For a couple of days, I hadn’t been myself, and this day I was going sky high! I barged into conversations expecting everyone to listen to me, made many inappropriate jokes and jumped on stage to claim the mic from an unsuspecting artist. “What the hell are you doing?!”, my friend said to me. He helped me by (physically) getting me back on the ground.

The Long Road to a First Diagnosis

I have been dealing with having bipolar disorder ever since. I experienced quite the mental crash that year and spent a few weeks at my parents’ house resting, seeing my first psychologists and preparing for a return to university. After changing university course, I was a physics student and besides pushing myself through the degree, I was enjoying the social part of being a student. I was a member of a student association and this typically meant lots of fun activities. As I already had friends from all these activities, I skipped all the social introduction activities when starting physics. Because of this I became a student who did most of my studying alone. This carried on into my personal life too. I don’t share my feelings much and almost never ask for help.

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Obsessing about the Academy: Finding Life with OCD by Zachary G. Smith

My body knew there was a problem before my brain. During my doctoral program, I began to suffer full-fledged panic attacks several times a day accompanied by sensory issues. Loud noises were piercing triggers, and a passing siren would leave me in a fetal position. I had never experienced anything like it, and I felt like I was spiraling out of control. There were other problems too. Opening a Word document to write or cracking the spine of a book sent waves of anxiety and panic through my body that came to rest in the back of my throat. I constantly replayed conversations with colleagues and faculty in my mind, highlighting my every fault. I needed hours before and after classes to work myself up and calm myself back down from these interactions. But the panic attacks were my primary concern: I couldn’t control them the way I could adjust my schedule to satisfy these mental rituals by which I got through the day. 

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Chin Up! Cheerleading and Bias in Academia by Jennifer Lynn Sarai Kriegel

TW: Sexual assault

A Pragmatic Pollyanna

Fear. Denial. Avoidance. Guilt. Self-blame. Wavering or low confidence. Self-judgment. Self-punishment. For weeks, I have been avoiding these entities which I keep in my shadows. Generally, I pretend they have vanished. Mostly, they have. In their place have grown or returned: strength, courage, and resilience. These are coupled with strategic planning, tenacity, and optimism. Such attitudes have allowed neurobiology to work primarily in my favor with each new positive experience, and regeneration of new cells that have only understood fear as a residual, rather than direct impact, a balance that has taken years to achieve.

Those who have been affected with mental health issues in any walk of life have at least once encountered the phrase “chin up!” suggesting that the affliction is, in fact, their own fault. Consistently, on my journey I have encountered both such stigmas, as well as resounding cheerleaders championing my success. Because of the stigmas, I generally refer to my condition as “recovered.” Also, maybe, because it’s also hard to admit to myself.

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Rethinking Our Compulsion to Comparison by Emily Beswick

I am a third-year PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh. Throughout school, university and postgraduate studies I have often been my own harshest critic when it comes to defining academic success. 

Completing my PhD during a global pandemic made me step back and try be more realistic in my goal-setting, and more adaptable to managing change. I wrote this blog in the hope of reminding myself, and others, that productivity is fluid and highly impacted by factors outside of our control. A reminder for self-compassion and accepting that whilst social comparison is often inevitable, remember every destination has many routes.  

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Finding a Friend In Failure by Victor Mosconi

Failure: IT’S OVER.

That’s how we often see it.

Failure is so often seen as the end of something. And not the end in a good way, but in a disappointing, tragic way, often ending in anguish, and sometimes with tears. 

“Failure” is a powerful word that creates all sorts of negative thoughts in the mind. Even just seeing the word creates anxiety and stress in some people. And if you experience the imposter phenomenon as I do, then not only do you worry about failing, but you internalize it as well and you see yourself as a failure. The imposter phenomenon, also known as imposter syndrome, is the inability to recognize internalized successes and achievements. It’s the constant fear of being seen a fraud for not being good enough. With my imposter phenomenon mindset, I saw myself as someone who always made mistakes and could never truly succeed. I not only failed in all I did and worked on, but in who I was as a person. The problem we often run into with the word “failure” is that we only look at the end result. And if that end result is not what you or others expected, then it’s deemed a failure. You didn’t achieve your goal, so it is determined to be a poor result, a mistake, and problem, maybe even a tragic end.  With the imposter phenomenon, you also see yourself as having not achieved what others expected, wanted or desired in a you. So, you see yourself as a failure.

In academia, there is often a lot of undefined end goals and you are continually adjusting as you go. Failure can seem like a weekly occurrence. You can be given a particular end goal in your first phase of a project or writing assignment, and once you’ve achieved it, your professor then will tell you how you need to change the focus of your project based on the first phase developments. But you also have to go back and change what was written in the first phase to align better with the new end goal. Being continually informed you have more changes and more alterations to make creates ever-growing thoughts that you’re failing at writing this project. You have the thoughts, if you weren’t failing at each step, you wouldn’t have all these changes. Working on my PhD dissertation has been exactly like this. I completed the first step, was told it was good, but I had to make all the changes. Okay, in my imposter mindset my first thought was, “so then it wasn’t good.” I’d rewrite it, turn it in, and she liked the changes, but, now I need to make these new alterations and drop this one variable, but maybe add this new variable. Each step there’s more changes, the end goal is not in sight. I’m not even sure what the end goal is besides earning my degree. And honestly, after the third rewrite, my imposter thought was “Oh, wow, I’m so bad at this, I’m going to fail out of my PhD.” 

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I Don’t Want to Dance in the Dark: Disclosing Mental Illness and Neurodiversity in the Ableist Academy by Marco Miguel Valero Sanchez

When I saw the call from Voices of Academia on Twitter actively seeking contributors to share their stories on mental health and well-being in academia, I thought: Wouldn’t a blog be a great way to share your own experiences with depression and ADHD in academia? Wouldn’t it also be an excellent opportunity to raise awareness about mental illness and neurodiversity in general? Why shouldn’t you give it a try? As usual, I was very tired that day. I had a sleepless and restless night, an unexpected panic attack in the morning, and a stronger depressive phase overall – perhaps because I already had a few days of holiday. I find such days off always give you the ‘opportunity’ to think intensively and continuously about yourself, your body, and your mind – whether you like it or not.

Perhaps my mental state was also the reason why my initial enthusiasm was immediately overtaken by self-doubt and pessimism, asking myself: Why would anyone care what you, of all people, have to say about the challenges and difficulties of managing mental health and well-being in academia? Who exactly would care about your personal story? And above all: Why would it make any difference and to whom? In fact, I cannot say whether anyone will read my personal story, care about it, or whether it will make any difference at all. But maybe these are the wrong questions and expectations to begin with. What I can say with absolute certainty, however, is that every voice matters with regard to mental health and well-being – in academia and beyond – and that every voice helps to shed light on a still taboo and mostly invisible topic. And in this respect, I am confident that my voice matters as well.

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Living with Anxiety in Academia: The Importance of Acceptance and Support by Carla Aranda

When you feel death getting closer, you inevitably reminisce about your life: your best experiences; your worst moments; the things you said you were going to do but, in the end, didn’t; the things you did not expect to happen, but did. And if you contemplate on these things a bit, you will likely come to the same conclusion I reach: our life is ruled by the values we hold, which help to determine our priorities and the choices we make. For example, going to that concert instead of studying for a math test, attending that family gathering or staying home, and even bigger things like moving abroad alone or staying in your country of origin with your romantic partner. Priorities dictate our experiences, and if you don’t have much time left, you will most likely think of those hours you wasted on allegedly important (but truly irrelevant) matters.

In this blog, I will discuss my experience as an undergraduate student suffering from anxiety and how the current educational system’s flaws affect many students’ mental health and self-worth. Additionally, I will stress the importance and impact of having – and being part of – a supportive, non-stigmatizing environment, as well as share my ongoing recovery journey and what has been helpful during it.

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No, I’m Not a Serial Killer, I’m a PhD Student –Living with Dissociative Identity Disorder by Nicole Melzack

TW: Descriptions of self-harm and scars

COVID-19 hitting the UK coincided with my contract ending in a job I loved in the Space Industry. Of course, this was not renewed and I found myself unemployed, and looking for work in the midst of a pandemic. I had worked in the Space Industry as a Thermal Spacecraft Engineer for the past six years, it’s a pretty niche job and there was not much demand for this skill in April 2020. After getting over the shock of my unemployment, and being reassured by my partner’s furlough, I decided to take some time to think about what I really wanted out of my next role. Looking back at the jobs I have had, I realised I loved the research side, the designing something new, and the ability to explore my academic curiosity. This is what convinced me it was time to make that a full-time role – so I applied for a PhD in Energy Storage and started at The University of Southampton in October 2020. It has been the best decision I ever made.

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