We are thrilled to announce that Voices of Academia is now one year old! When we started out we wondered if we would even be able to find bloggers, yet here we are with over 50 blogs now available for you to view, written by the amazing #AcademicMentalHealth community, and many more waiting to be published. It would not have been possible without you – our contributors and our readers – so thank you.
In our first blog post, we outlined the importance of individual voices in sharing experiences of mental health, mental illness and wellness in the academy. Whilst empirical methods of evaluating academic mental health are useful, we believe that the unique experiences of individuals can often get lost in the numbers and statistics. For example, knowing that ~one in two graduate students experience mood disorders such as anxiety and depression during their PhD programs (which is six times higher than the general population) tells us little of the lived experiences of these individuals. Further, one person’s experience of impostor syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), or depression, is unique and entirely their own. To build community and to help our fellow academics realise that they are not alone in their struggles, we believe it is essential that we provide a space to discuss our individual mental health stories. This is where Voices of Academia can provide a space for these narratives.
What have we achieved?
To date, we are thrilled to report that we have published 51 blogs in total. In these submissions we have covered mental health stories from a range of career stages across academia, from administration staff, undergraduates, PhD students and professors. Our blog authors have explored a range of themes that impact mental health within academia from managing the student-supervisor relationship, to being neurodiverse, to returning to academia following maternity leave, to dealing with loss and grief, to navigating academic life with medical conditions such as Trichotillomania and Pre-Menstrual Dysphoria Disorder (PMDD). Our full list of main blog themes so far are shown in the graph below.
Figure: Main themes of Voices of Academia blog posts to date. Note: This is an approximation based on the interpretation of the submitted blogs by the VoA team.
Whilst it may seem like there is a great deal of similarity in the topics our authors have addressed, we want to take this moment to highlight the diversity of experiences within these stories. For example, the three blogs in which the authors explore (at least in part) the idea of self-worth in academia could not be more different. Dr Dominic Sirianni talks about experiencing “guilt and self-loathing was fuelled by an incomplete understanding of what Depression and Anxiety actually are—legitimate illnesses—and not a crutch, an excuse, a shortcoming, or a personal failure.” Sophia Upshaw talks in detail about overcoming feeling ashamed for leaving graduate school – a decision that many people can relate to – and reclaiming her worth. Nat Rodrigues Lopes discusses the pressure on graduate students, saying, “I have long intertwined my identity (and my self-worth) with my academic achievements, from school, all the way to my present career in academia. It is not that I feel entitled to or worthy of achievements or praise – it is that, without it, I lose a sense of self, and of worth.”
We are especially pleased that we have been able to capture a range of experiences from people through the university hierarchy, from new PhD students moving abroad, to tenured professors reflecting back on their experiences, as well as those in academia in support roles. One of the blogs that generated a great deal of interest from readers was written by Professor Tricia Carmichael, who shared her experiences with poor physical and mental ill-health throughout a stellar academic career. As she points out, while many people appear on paper to be highly successful, a CV does not tell the full story. Another “voice” that joined the conversation was an anonymous administrative employee who shared their experience of depression and anxiety arising from bullying at work. This highlights how whole-university approaches to improved mental health support are needed at every level throughout our institutions.
Building A Community (and Podcast!)
In creating a space for people to share their stories, we have also found amazing members of the academic community that have joined the Voices of Academia team and enabled us to expand to have even greater impact in the future. These people volunteer their time to help us fight the stigma around mental health in academia. We are incredibly grateful to Emily King, Syreeta Nolan and Daniel Ranson for joining us in this endeavour, working diligently behind the scenes to produce the podcast, and on the promotion of our work on social media, in their ‘spare’ time. We are especially excited that there is enough interest to warrant a Voices of Academia podcast, providing another format for members of the academic community to share their stories. We wanted to provide the team with the opportunity to share their thoughts about VOA and their experiences to date:
Dan (@mrdanielranson): Being able to share the VoA platform with some amazing mental health advocates, and most importantly to learn and share brave people’s experiences about mental health and wellness in the world of academia makes me really excited. I really hope I can continue to contribute to removing the stigma around mental health and mental illness, as I really believe no-one should ever feel or be alone.
Emily (EKing_Sci): I am incredibly proud to be part of VoA. It’s early days for the podcast but already, I’ve spoken with brave people from around the world willing to share their experiences of mental health in academia. I’m starting to hear how these stories have been a wake up call to seek support, or made someone feel seen. I feel that this platform has been needed for a long time. No-one should have to struggle alone, in silence.
Syreeta (nolan_syreeta): Graduating soon with my bachelor’s in Human Health Psychology while living with Fibromyalgia and PTSD has been largely because of communities like VoA and #DisabilityTwitter. The support of these communities has been invaluable to share the good and the bad of my experience as a Black Disabled woman. As a part of VoA, I have learned from every podcast guest and writer. I look forward to highlighting many more diverse mental health stories from the perspectives of undergraduates, Black, Latinx, disabled and other underrepresented groups. Community is so important to know that we are not alone. #AcademicMentalHealth is truly fostered here on VoA.
Looking to the Future
Moving forward, we want to continue to share people’s experiences about mental health and mental illness in academia to help people feel less alone, reduce stigma, and encourage positive change. In doing so, we also hope to increase the diversity of submissions in several ways.
For example, one of our goals is to actively invite more people from diverse backgrounds to contribute to the blog. At the moment we have many more blogs from young white women than any other demographic, and we would like to hear from a wider range of voices. That being said, we are aware that speaking up about mental health issues can be very challenging and this can be even more difficult when coming from a minority group. We are nonetheless committed to providing a space for those that do feel able to speak out.
We also hope to hear from authors from a wider variety of countries in future. We believe this is especially important given the differences in academic experiences across the world, particularly with respect to PhD programs, job opportunities and requirements for tenure (to name just a few factors!). At the moment, most of our submissions have come from the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe and we welcome potential authors from across the globe to submit their stories.
Finally, we are planning to promote VOA and academic mental health broadly through designing merchandise and we hope to be selling products online by the end of this year. We also hope that this will help to generate a small amount of financial support to continue the blog long-term and allow for other exciting opportunities, such as networking events and conferences for those interested in #AcademicMentalHealth. Watch this space!
As many of our blog authors have pointed out, many of us work in hypercompetitive cultures that prioritize academic success above all else, with leaders who do not value the well-being of staff. Ultimately, we suggest that academic culture is one of the major factors – if not the most important factor – that has created the crisis in academic mental health that we are facing now. Hence the question becomes: How can we change the culture? We suggest that such change will require a multifaceted strategy with input from people at all levels, not simply senior leaders. As we have argued recently, it will require things such as consideration of how we define success in academia, more open conversations about mental health and mental ill-health, and major practical changes to reduce the factors that lead to poor health. We suggest that administrators, students and faculty from minority groups, as well as those in recognized “at risk” groups, such as international students, should be included in these discussions.
And while it is important to recognize the current challenges, it is also heartening to see that there is a strong appetite for change. There are more and more articles about the mental health of PhD students and faculty in the popular press, with most voicing considerable concern. Researchers are increasingly paying attention to the topic, with a number of articles published in journals in recent times. Organisations such as Dragonfly Mental Health, Cactus Global, and PhD Balance are doing excellent work across multiple initiatives.
We also want to emphasize that we, as individuals, can make small decisions every day to protect our well-being. This might mean supporting a colleague to make a complaint of bullying or harassment. It might mean saying “no” (as much as possible) to unrealistic workload expectations. It might mean making the conscious choice not to answer e-mails outside of work hours (and if you are in a position of authority, telling your students not to look at their e-mails either!). If you are a PhD supervisor or PI, it might mean genuinely asking your students about their mental health ,and directing them to support services as needed. It might be taking time out of your day to attend therapy.
We are convinced that success is a journey, not simply a destination, and we are proud that Voices of Academia is part of a wider push in higher education to support those with mental illness and promote well-being for all. Thank you for being part of this journey with us.