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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‘Honey, I shrunk the postgraduate kids!’ – Disability, Precarity, and Support in Academia by Athanasia Francis

 TW: Suicide ideation, Images of hair loss, Images of medication

Collecting my hair falling in batches around me was something I slowly came to accept as a daily ritual, as was the case with the dozens of pills when I could afford the prescriptions.  I have been suffering from a chronic neurological condition and its fluctuations are debilitating, even when I look ‘fine’ on the outside. Some of the ways I experience my condition include muscle fatigue, joints locking suddenly, lack of coordination, memory gaps, week-long migraines while constantly in pain, disorientation and brain fog; in short, a body on permanent false alarm mode and attacking itself. 

I’ve been also severely depressed with relapses since my early twenties in a constant post-traumatic downward spiral, which coincided with twelve years in academia. Eventually, it became difficult to tell which condition was triggering the other. My mental state and physicality were tangled into a messy knot that was at times too unbearable to break through. I had come to the brink of quitting many times, quitting whatever career ahead, quitting my PhD, quitting any remaining faith and effort, quitting life. 

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From Kryptonite to Superpower: My Story of Being an Empath in Academia by Claudia Mirretta Barone

My name is Claudi. I am a scientist and I am “too sensitive”, “emotional”, and often “take things too personally”; at least, that’s what others have told me all my life. This made me believe that there was something wrong with me and that I didn’t have what it takes to be successful in academia, or life in general. Because of this, I have suffered from my supposed vulnerability and weakness and I have repeatedly tried to figure out what was wrong with me and how to fix it – fix ME – by numbing myself, because that was what I felt others expected me to do. 

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Academia and Low Self-Esteem: A Tale of Two Things by Elia Magrinelli

“Who am I?”

When answering this question some people might think about defining moments in their life. I have a clear memory of my early high school years; I was having an oral exam during biology class on the subject of animal physiology and evolution, something most of my classmates were struggling with, considering it a mnemonical exercise. That exam didn’t just go well for me; I aced it! I still remember the signs of awe in my classmates’ eyes at the end of the exam evoking a sensation that ultimately became a core memory and a pillar in defining who I would say I was for a long time. I was good at science. What maybe I didn’t fully understand at the time was that the feeling I had latched onto was not just that of mastering something, but the feeling of having my peers recognise me as someone who was highly talented, along with the feeling of acknowledgment. This identity and motivation, being recognised as a gifted STEM student, has pushed me over the years to achieve a lot academically, but it also came with some large pitfalls and insecurities. Furthermore, I believe that the academic system can amplify some of these insecurities, and this is why I wanted to share my experience here.

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The Power of Community for Addressing Academic Mental Health by Ciro De Vincenzo

I still remember vividly the first day of my PhD. The sky was crystal clear, with no sign of clouds, and the temperature was so mild that it seemed to harmonize with the serenity of my soul. And my first lecture was amazing. I had my special notebook/pen and took notes tirelessly during my “Contemporary Social Theory” class. I was so eager to deepen my knowledge! In the following days, I started to get along with my colleagues and I met my supervisor to create a work timetable. Taking PhD classes, studying the literature on my topic, and writing drafts of articles made up my routine—along with daily beers with friends. What could go any better?

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Coping With Anxiety and Grief: Accepting Help and Moving Forward by Gurnoor Mutreja

I am a law teacher and postgraduate in law who has lived her life according to a plan. I can say with pride that I have been academically very competent throughout my life. I passed all exams with flying colours and therefore I assumed that I would easily land a job. However, the Covid pandemic and changes in my personal life made it hard for me to secure a job. 

In this blog, I will discuss my journey through depression and anxiety and how these affected my professional life.  I will also discuss how accepting the problem and seeking helped me find a way forward. 

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Challenges of Navigating a PhD while Recovering from Mental Health Conditions by Daeun Jung

I was first diagnosed with depression and generalised anxiety disorder ten years ago. My first reaction to getting the diagnosis was relief. I was relieved that my problems were medically recognised. I was not just “weak” or “lazy” or “attention-seeking”; I felt validated. Then I felt angry. Why did I have to seek validation through a medical diagnosis? Since then, I have been on three different antidepressants, been hospitalised a few times, and gained some scars along the way. At the same time, I have finished my bachelor’s and master’s degrees and worked in four different jobs, which led to last year when I started my PhD programme and joined the world of academia. In this blog post, I will share my experiences of navigating the first year of PhD while managing mental health conditions.

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Drought Days: Reflections on Work in Troubling Times by David Abbott

 I write this at the dimming of a heatwave day. In the mornings I feel utterly discombobulated, a bit sick and a bit dizzy. A mix of medications and general gloom. The sunshine and excessive heat are of course hugely problematic in terms of current concerns about climate change. And the light is better for my morale than the inevitable long months of a grey, Welsh winter. Even at this time of day, my thinking is not very efficient. Reviewer 2 would definitely say that this piece lacks structure and clarity. It’s true. But here is what I have to say anyway. 

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The perfect researcher (and why I am not it) by Zoë Ayres

Just another typical PhD day for me. Highlighting another research paper, trying desperately to retain the salient bits. Mixing it up with different coloured highlighters. Grabbing a cup of coffee, hoping that the information might go in if I let the caffeine sink in. And yet it never quite does. I beat myself up, telling myself I am too stupid to do a PhD. Walking away from a meeting, I feel ashamed, as I know I read the paper that was being discussed, I just can’t quite recall the details. Rinse and repeat. This, combined with many other small things, which in isolation were hardly something to fret about, left my mental health in tatters.

It’s not just a bad day, or a bad week. It’s all the time. I am struggling to engage in reading papers. As soon as I pick them up, I glaze over or I get distracted. My reading list grows forever longer – the weight of it playing on the back of my mind. My inner voice constantly telling me I am not doing enough to succeed.

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Surviving Loss: Supporting Bereavement in Early Career Academics by Sam Strong

Nothing in the world can prepare a person to lose a loved one. Sure, mental health professionals can explain the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance)1, but the path and duration of the journey is entirely individual – in my experience it’s like wading through a heavy substance. On good days you can move forwards slowly, one step at a time. Other days, it’s easier to stand still, or move backwards into the path you’ve already created. This can make it difficult to see a future, and it can feel like everything becomes more challenging. You can see then how this type of scenario could impact a person in their early academic career, which is already widely regarded as an extremely challenging time.

I sadly lost both my parents in my late teens which had a huge impact on my wellbeing and an even bigger impact on my career decisions. Now, it may have taken me a very long time to be in a place where I feel comfortable enough to talk about those experiences, but I now feel that it’s important for me to raise awareness in the hopes it may help people understand how to support individuals in similar circumstances. 

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Loss of Identity: Surviving Post-PhD Depression by Amy Gaeta

Completing the biggest achievement of my life has left me in the most zombie, emotionally depleted state of my life. Immediately after defending my dissertation successfully, thereby securing my Ph.D. in English, I found myself soft crying into a pillow and trying to find enough stability to reply to all the “congratulations!” text messages pinging on my phone. This emotional release marked the start of what I’ll refer to as my post-PhD depression: a state of aimlessness, premature cynicism, and loss sparked by the contradictory realization that it is all over and yet there is so much more to do. It is like finishing a marathon after giving all you got only to realize you’ve agreed to compete in a triathlon every day for the rest of your career.

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