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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Voices of Academia, Two Years On: Where do we go from here? by Dr Marissa Kate Edwards and Dr Zoë Ayres

We are thrilled to announce that Voices of Academia is now two years old! We are so thankful for you, our community, and proud that we are now over 15,000 followers strong.  

Although Voices of Academia was conceived during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it still feels as relevant as ever. Numerous #AcademicMentalHealth tweets as well as published research reveal that academics continue to struggle with the demands of working in a busy and competitive work environment. Many academics report feeling anxious, burnt out and increasingly despondent about the future. Students experienced considerable distress during the upheaval of COVID-19 and now appear to be more disengaged than ever before. Furthermore, we are sure that many of our readers will have seen the constant discussions about going “alt-ac” and pursuing a career outside of the traditional faculty position. After the last two years, many academics have nothing left to give—and they are looking for an exit strategy.

Given the current situation, the mental health of staff and students should be an urgent priority for universities, but we know that this is not necessarily the case. Indeed, many of our blog authors have shared how the culture of overwork in academia has contributed to their mental ill-health and in some cases hindered their recovery. Others have shared how the stigma of mental illness in the academy has discouraged them from speaking up and seeking help. We agree with Professor June Gruber, who argued last year that higher education needs to do more to address mental health issues:    

“Despite growing awareness of a mental health crisis among undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty, much of higher education has remained silent or complicit in perpetuating stigma towards mental illness. I’ve seen this first-hand, even in my own field of clinical psychology. A reckoning with how we handle mental health in daily life in higher education is long overdue.”

We hope that initiatives such as Voices of Academia can help to reduce some of the stigma and – along with many other important efforts – contribute to cultural change in universities over time.  

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Leading by Example: Living with Mental Illness in Academia by Dr Peter Rohde

Mental health within academia has recently gained well-deserved attention in the press and the hashtag #AcademicMentalHealth often trends on social media. But most importantly, I’ve noticed it’s been gaining attention within universities themselves with self-care workshops and other initiatives often being promoted. I believe it is important that conversations about “Academic Mental Health” are not restricted only to the experiences of senior academics, but must also involve our students and early career researchers, who face tremendous pressures and need to be well-equipped for their future careers.

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How My Side Hustle Brings Me Happiness in Academia by Vicky Ingram

Trigger warnings: Depression, Anxiety, COVID-19, cancer

Doing a PhD was the best thing I’ve done, but also the scariest, most emotional, and most challenging thing I’ve done. I’m going to tell you my story: how my PhD broke me, how the culture of academia means that we often struggle to meet some of our basic human needs, and how training to be a life coach has improved my mental health. 

In my second year of my PhD, I found myself on anti-depressants due to a combination of imposter syndrome, inability to grasp concepts, realising I hated reading journal articles, and loneliness. One of the activities that got me through was being part of the PGR student society and being a student rep, working with the student union and the researcher development team to help improve student experiences, run activities and push the university on policy improvements.

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How To Support Someone With Bipolar Disorder by Jahanvi J

Living with bipolar disorder is not easy. You have to struggle daily to regulate your mood and emotions. It’s a challenge in itself. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder is defined as a “mental disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.” Your energy, mood, and productivity shift a lot throughout the day. It can range from elated, energetic, self-confident and to feeling hopeless, indifferent, and a lack of interest in activities (even those that bring joy). These episodes or mood shifts are categorised into mania and depression. A person with a bipolar brain often struggles to do daily tasks while experiencing mood shifts. And, lack of support system, therapy or bipolar medication can severely impact their condition, making it worse. 

During my masters, my bipolar became worse. Prior to that, I was managing it somehow, but with a change in environment and pressure of academia, it came to breaking point. I would have bouts of crying during classes and developed a fear of writing. I was earlier very hesitant due to misconceptions around taking medication because I was told they are addictive and it’s all about inner strength. Yes, inner strength matters but medication really became my saving grace. My condition improved drastically once I had the right medication and therapy. I was able to go back to my routine and studies. 

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It Does Not (Just) Get Better by Jo Breit

CW: mentions suicidal thoughts, self-harm, depression.

If you are a young researcher (maybe a student or a postdoc), struggling with anxiety and depression, maybe you think it will get better once I graduate, or maybe you think it will get better once I get a postdoc with a fancy group, or it will get better once I get a paper in a prestigious journal, or it will get better once I get a tenure track faculty position

I am here to tell you that those things will not make it better. I have been there, thought those thoughts, and achieved those goals. My depression and anxiety are still here.

Maybe you can yourself recognize that you once thought that it will get better once I get into grad school or once I pass my quals and now that you have achieved those goals you are still struggling.

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To Quit or Not to Quit: Pursuing a PhD During the Pandemic as an International Scholar by Athira Unni 

It is a special kind of passion (or masochism) that makes one apply for a PhD during a pandemic. While it is well-known that doctoral studies can be isolating compared to other student experiences, it is especially isolating to undertake this journey today and study in a foreign country. In this blog post, I will reflect on my experiences as an international student from India pursuing her doctoral studies in Leeds during the COVID-19 pandemic and how this has impacted my mental health struggles. 

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It Gets Lonely Out Here: On Self-Disclosure of Lived Experience in the Social Work Field by Teresa Theophano, LCSW

As a queer femme doctoral student in social work and a practicing mental health clinician who is also a recipient of mental health care services, I tend to be out, loud, and–if not exactly proud–consistently working on alleviating my own internalized shame. After all, homophobia, misogyny, and stereotyping mean that someone like me is not entirely unlikely to be branded the c-word: crazy.

In this blog, I will discuss the importance of acknowledging lived-experience practitioners in the social work field, and how disclosure and support can strengthen both academia and practice settings.

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What Does Self-Care Really Mean? By Jessie Shepherd

We all know that doing a PhD is hard: there are mental challenges, physical exhaustion, and self-doubt that must be overcome to successfully navigate this path. How do we last on this very long journey without allowing the weight of it all to overwhelm us? What does it really mean to take care of ourselves while still managing all that we do? 

Five years ago, I was teaching a group of psychology graduate students, talking about their self-care while working in mental health settings and one said, “We can’t do self-care, most days I don’t have time to poop.” 

While I understand the feeling, and time pressure; I do think we often have a misunderstanding of what self-care really means. Often, we view it as weekend trips to the spa with our friends or nights spent drinking and socialising. And sometimes people disguise self-destructive behaviours as self-care. This perception of self-care is that it is an activity that must be planned, takes a large amount of time, often involves expense, and can lead to more physical strain (hangovers are not great for concentration or academic writing). But as a therapist and current PhD student on my own journey with mental health, I want to challenge that notion and make clear what self-care is (and is not).

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When Universities Listen to Sexual Harassment Survivors by Anonymous

TW: Sexual harassment and indecent assault

When you hear about allegations of abuse and mistreatment in higher education, so many of the stories are from people who feel that the systems failed them, their experiences were “swept under the carpet”, and administrators failed to investigate and/or act on the allegations. My story, thankfully, is different. While I will explain in detail the adverse impact that the harassment and indeed the investigation itself had on my mental health, I believe that my story is also one of hope: it shows that in some cases universities do act appropriately following student complaints, and people are brought to justice. While I appreciate that not everyone will feel safe speaking up about their experiences, I want to highlight that sometimes institutions do the right thing and survivors can ultimately prevail.

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My Journey to Mental Illness R̵e̵c̵o̵v̵e̵r̵y̵ Maintenance by Zoë Ayres

TW: Suicide ideation

I was first diagnosed with clinical depression during my PhD program. I was experiencing near-daily suicidal ideation at the time and had realised that I needed help. For as long as I can remember I had compared myself with others and minimised my own experience, by looking at the struggles of those around me and thinking “What do I really have to complain about?”. I had steady income, a supportive husband, friends and family that would be there in an instant, if I were to simply ask. That’s the thing with depression: it can make us feel incredibly guilty for not feeling happy, despite clear positive things in our lives. Our internal self-deprecating voice can make us spiral further and further down into guilt. The disgust and anger I felt towards myself for not “appreciating” those that love us and “how good we have it” made me feel even worse, until I turned that hatred inwards. The thing is, we are not in control in these moments. We can’t simply ask our brains to be kinder to us through willpower, just like we cannot fix a broken leg through thought alone. It takes support, resources, and time to get better. 

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