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.

Mental health problems seem to disproportionately affect those within academia, from students to tenured academics, with one study finding that graduate students are more than six times more likely to suffer depression or anxiety than the general population. The stressors are immense, including job insecurity, a system under intense financial pressures, and enormous workloads and expectations. Coupled with the conventional academic career path being highly uncertain, transitory, and taking a long time to find security (the chances of which are extremely low to begin with), the stress and strain on non-tenured academics is huge. There is the disappointment that academia just isn’t what it’s made out to be, or what it should be, which can be demoralising, with many academics overwhelmed with administration and grant writing rather than the research about which they are passionate. Now lockdowns and social isolation along with mounting job insecurity place us all under extreme psychological duress.

In my experience, even amongst those with no apparent previous signs of mental health issues, the chances of burnout at some stage are very high. This seems especially common amongst PhD students upon completing their degrees and entering the job market, something that certainly hit me at the time.

For me, how we prepare our students and junior colleagues—many of whom might already be struggling with mental health issues—for what’s to come ahead in their academic journey is key to addressing mental health concerns in academia. When I was a student, mental health was never really discussed, and certainly not by our teachers or mentors, although in hindsight it is likely that mental illness affected at least some of them. I’ve come to see this reluctance to engage in what many see as a difficult topic as the biggest obstacle to confronting it, and the reason I’ve come to think that openness is the most powerful tool at our disposal.

Living with Bipolar Disorder

I’m certainly an academic affected by a mental health condition. In my case, I live with bipolar disorder, a chronic, lifelong condition that makes the obstacle course of an academic career so much more challenging. I have also worked on the frontline of mental health intervention, having volunteered as a Lifeline telephone suicide and crisis counsellor for many years and spoken to thousands of individuals facing every imaginable life hurdle.

When I was first diagnosed in my mid-twenties, midway through my PhD, my initial approach was the default position that many take, keeping it under wraps due to the stigma and potential career implications it might have (which it did). But nowadays my approach is the opposite. I embrace complete openness. My policy when commencing a new job is to always be upfront with my employers from day one. And should the topic come up in conversation, I don’t hesitate to talk to my colleagues or students about it. This isn’t to say that I try to make a point of it; I just normalise it. But at the same time, I’m fortunate enough to have a tenured position, whereas many who don’t might be disinclined to do so out of fear for their job prospects.

Over the years the reception has been mixed, ranging from alarm bordering on panic to dismissiveness. But for the most part, I’ve found, especially nowadays, that people are completely okay with it and appreciate the openness. People are inherently going to be more relaxed about something if you are; conversely if you’re highly guarded.

Suppose, like me back in the day, your concern is that you’ll be misunderstood, stigmatised or devalued because you have a mental health condition. Some ways to reframe this are:

  • If mental health issues are misunderstood or under-recognised in your workplace, here’s your opportunity to help address them for the benefit of both yourself and others (and there inevitably are others) — here’s an opportunity to show leadership. 
  • In the unlikely event your employer devalues and stigmatises people for any reason at all, that says a lot more about them than about you, and they’re probably not worthy of having you as an employee to begin with. Devaluing others is not an admirable trait and not one that anyone should feel oppressed by. They’re putting their ignorance on display and the best way to combat it is with insight. Unfortunately, it is this fear of being judged and a sense of intimidation that inhibits progress, thereby creating a self-reinforcing cycle. The goal, for those of us that can, is to break it.

Speaking Up 

How might we engage with others about such personal and sensitive issues? Initiatives like RUOK Day are great for awareness and publicity, but walking up to a colleague you don’t know well and asking them if they’re doing ok doesn’t come naturally to many, and may feel awkward or out of place. Many would be stumped as to how to take the conversation further if the response was “no”.

Thus the goal has to be to not force conversations or be artificial. The goal is to normalise it and make it natural, devoid of awkwardness. For those of us living with mental health conditions, the most powerful thing we can do is to normalise our own experiences and demonstrate by example that they don’t have to hold us back from achieving great things.

In my view, the most effective way to achieve this is for successful academics with lived experience of mental illness to be open about it, providing role models who demonstrate that you can live with a mental illness and manage the complexities of navigating an academic (or any other) career. Living with a mental illness should never be perceived as a barrier to success. In being open about it, our peers and especially our students can have the sense of comfort that you can relate to their experiences, you aren’t going to be judgmental, and that they should not feel any aversion or hesitancy in discussing their experiences with you if that’s something they would like to do. Even if they choose not to, knowing that they can provides comfort in itself.

Speaking up might help others in ways you might not realise, too. For example, in my experience, it is important to develop self-management strategies to help you cope with and navigate mental illness. This is something that applies across all aspects of life, not only within the workplace. Although everybody’s management strategies are different, and what works for some may not work for others, simply hearing about the approaches others use can be enormously helpful in finding your own. For this reason, I’ve often engaged in conversations discussing what works for me, enabling others to “broaden their toolbox” on the route to discovering what works for them. Even if none of my approaches are useful to others, simply being aware of the importance of finding self-management techniques and that they exist can instill confidence in others that they will find theirs.

Using your own experience to help the lives of others will also help your own. One of the best ways to improve your own mental health is to see the rewards of helping others improve theirs, especially if their gains have come from what you shared. Overall, I have found that simply sharing your story demonstrates that you’re approachable and that you “get it”. 

In my opinion, this is where those in positions of leadership and/or seniority in universities have the greatest potential to create change and lead by example. Anyone can experience mental illness, and senior academics are as human as anyone else. The more senior you are, the greater your influence will be if you lead by example, showing that you can make it. If those at the top show their cards rather than hold them close against their chest, it immediately reduces the sense of stigma for everyone else. What a powerful sign it would be if a Vice-Chancellor or CEO were to openly talk about and normalise their mental health challenges. But we don’t have to be running a company to have an impact. We all have individuals under our guidance and mentorship whom we influence, formally or not. Normalising and being open about our challenges is just as powerful to them as a Vice-Chancellor would be to me. This is a cultural shift we can all contribute to, regardless of where we stand.

Dr Peter Rohde

Dr Peter Rohde is Senior Lecturer and former ARC Future Fellow in quantum computing at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. He obtained his undergraduate and PhD degrees at the University of Queensland and has worked at leading international institutions including the University of Oxford, Max Planck Institute, University of Paderborn, University of Queensland, Macquarie University and the University of Technology Sydney. He is a TEDx speaker and author of the book “The Quantum Internet” published by Cambridge University Press. He is the developer of MoodSnap (www.moodsnap.app), a free mood diary app designed for people with mood disorders. When not designing quantum computers he is a hiker, mountaineer, rock climber, and canyoner. You can find him on Twitter @drpeterrohde, or at his website www.peterrohde.org.