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.”
It is clear that mental health concerns are pervasive all the way through the academic system, from our undergraduate students, to our postgraduate students, to teaching and research faculty.
The pressures experienced at these stages are clearly different, but it is apparent that something needs to be done to improve the overall academic experience. We argue that talking about our experiences is the first step, yet we know that many people are still reluctant to speak up about their lived experience with mental illness. For example, in a recent discussion in The Conversation, senior lecturer Paul Gorczynski observed that, “With limited, hard to find services and the stigma that surrounds poor mental health, it is unsurprising that only 6.7% of UK academic staff have ever disclosed a mental health condition.”
We believe that there are several reasons for this “culture of silence” around mental illness in higher education environments. In our experiences, observations and the accounts of others, there are many people who believe that mental health is one’s personal responsibility and it is a function of individual choices, despite the various environmental and organisational factors that can influence well-being. In turn, there is a pervasive belief that people should simply “toughen up” and take responsibility for themselves when they are struggling. Often silence is easier than speaking up, especially when discussing sensitive topics. Sometimes people believe that if they intervene to support a colleague, they will be held responsible if something goes wrong. Additionally, it is clear that many universities lack appropriate mental health programs and support for students and staff, often because of inadequate funding. It is therefore important for us to continue to build on the information available pertaining to academic mental health and mental illness to improve our understanding of people’s experiences and learn more about how we can provide support. Furthermore, it is essential to share our stories to extract common themes; it is our hope that this will help build more effective interventions, policies and procedures, and ultimately make academia a place where people from all backgrounds can truly thrive.
Why “Voices of Academia”?
Firstly, it important to acknowledge that empirical research into mental health, mental illness and well-being in academic settings is critically important, and we hope to see this continue. It is heartening to see that this issue is beginning to receive the attention it deserves, and that some universities are taking steps to initiate change. It is essential that we continue to investigate the experiences of academics and publish these findings to increase the evidence base. This is critical if we wish to create cultural and structural change.
At the same time, however, we believe that individual voices are just as important.
Behind the statistics about mental health and mental illness, every person has a story – and these stories need to be shared.
Voices of Academia will act as hub to share these stories, through the curation of our blog, as well as the retweeting of other blogs with a shared purpose from our Twitter account (@academicvoices).
Like many professions, there is overwhelming pressure in academia to be productive and maintain a high level of performance at all times and at all costs. This prevalent toxic mentality of prioritising publications, grants, and other measures of success over self-care creates the image of a ‘cookie cutter’ academic who is defined by their output alone. This can mean that those who do not, or simply cannot, fit the mould become marginalised and often leave the academy, taking their creativity and passion with them. Alternatively, many people in academia choose to stay and “wear a mask” and withhold their experiences of struggle, pain, failure, and loss, to maintain a façade of wellness and success. This is so often a safety strategy for fear of seeming ‘weak’ – because of the strong competition for jobs and the perpetual emphasis on output, with anything other than “being a machine” viewed as failure. It also prevents us from being vulnerable.
Yet vulnerability and connection are what academia desperately needs. In the words of Brené Brown, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” By refusing, or not being able to be vulnerable, we also indirectly create a negative experience for our undergraduates and postgraduates, feeding into feelings of impostor syndrome. This also contributes to a sense of not belonging or deserving to be part of the academy: “If I’m not a beacon of productivity and success, then surely I don’t belong?” From the perspective of a student, it is often impossible to see the cracks in the façade. Voices of Academia is one step towards breaking down this façade, enabling us to show we are human, share our stories as well as empathise and connect with others.
We must acknowledge that discrimination is prevalent is higher education and can have a major impact on the mental health of employees and students. This is especially true of racial discrimination. At this point in time only 1% of UK professors are Black, there is an attainment gap of 16% between Black Asian and Minority Ethnic Community (BAME) students and white students and significantly less BAME representation on panels and boards making decisions. And all this is not even discussing the day-to-day racism many face. This has to change. As curators of Voices of Academia, we acknowledge our white privilege and hope that we can actively listen and support the voices of those driving towards a better, more inclusive academia. Providing a platform for voices is not enough – we all need to do more to address systemic racism in the academy and create meaningful and practical change. It is only by having a diverse workforce can we solve some of the greatest challenges of today. We hope Voices of Academia is a small step in the right direction, aiming to provide a safe space for discussion on how to improve diversity and inclusion within the academy, as well as highlight experiences that have driven people out, so we can learn and enact change.
We want to hear from you
If you are in academia, or have left academia, and have a mental health or wellness story to share, we absolutely want to hear from you. We welcome submissions from people working at all levels, as well as professional staff in higher education settings, from all backgrounds. Ultimately, we believe that it is through sharing our stories that we can find ways to promote mental health in higher education, and work towards creating a culture where wellness is acknowledged as a critical part of being a successful academic. In providing a platform to disclose our experiences, we also hope to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness in academic settings, highlighting that mental illness can affect us all, and ultimately work towards meaningful change. Perhaps most importantly, we hope to demonstrate that if you are struggling right now, you are not alone. Let’s work to change the culture – together.
This blog was written jointly by Dr Marissa Kate Edwards and Dr Zoë Ayres, for Voices of Academia, 2020