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?

The Storm

And yet I came down to earth fast. A storm had been brewing that I could not have predicted: a combination of factors that made me feel worried and exhausted and impacted my mental health by lowering my self-esteem and self-efficacy and slowly eroding my well-being. At first, I did not realize what was happening. Classes turned out to be boring and technical, far away from the methodological issues that were relevant to my research as well as distant from the psychosocial problems I was interested in. 

Then there was feeling alone. My supervisor, an excellent professor, was not always present, and I soon got lost in the ocean of the literature review, scrambling for references and getting nothing from it other than confusion. My inner social circle, which was composed of undergraduate students at that time, had a completely different rhythm. They went out late at night and sometimes I could not meet with them because I had classes the next day at 8 am, making me feel more and more isolated. Further, the more seriously and deeply I studied, the more I felt ignorant and unprepared for the tasks I had ahead. And as I looked around at my colleagues, all of them seemed to have clear ideas and well-defined goals. We did talk, from time to time, about critical issues, but I did not feel we were sharing the same turmoil. Although these signs should have sent important messages to me, I did not take these feelings seriously. I did not stop to reflect on them, on their meanings and implications. I simply told myself: “Perhaps, it is just a moment, it will change—do not worry.”

But it did not change, or more precisely it changed, but for the worse. What I thought was just a breath of wind turned out to be the whole atmosphere surrounding my PhD. I found myself worrying about completely new emotions and thoughts regularly. The “Others” (a generalized Other) were always self-confident, while I was doubtful about everything, from the aim to the research design of my project. I once used to share my ideas, but I started to hide them. All my reflexive skills were turning against me—I saw mistakes and fallacies everywhere. So, instead of finding someone with whom to share my experience, I battled against myself. Furthermore, as usually happens in times of great distress, I felt nobody could help, understand, or support me. Before I knew it, I found myself amid a serious personal crisis. 

Struggling to Swim

This combination of factors resulted in me struggling with a range of feelings and emotions, which I share to help you recognise if you might be struggling:

  • Feeling lost: Although I had always been a serial procrastinator, my procrastination worsened, because it gave me a cognitive distance from facing my struggles – I could use it as an avoidance mechanism.  I also often felt I did not have the necessary skills to complete a task so avoided it. This was compounded by not wanting the “Others” to see the results and criticize me.
  • Feeling useless: Whenever I thought of my research, I always had bad feelings about its present state and, most importantly, future development. It seemed useless and lacking meaning to me, and I could not see how they could award me with the PhD title. I had this growing fear that I could not make it. I cannot count on how many ‘how-to’ books I relied upon: ‘how-to-write’; ‘how-to-respect-timetable’; ‘how-to…’. And yet I couldn’t seem to actually put the tips into action. 
  • Feeling guilty: Because of the first and second points, rather than accepting that I needed some personal time to recover and restore my love for my PhD, I simply wasted time in doing nothing, then felt even more guilty. Reflecting back – this was likely burnout. When I did try to look after myself, for example, to enjoy a film I still felt bad. Moreover, I felt like an impostor who should be working – something I know now not to be true.
  • Feeling attacked: Receiving feedback was particularly challenging. Every “evaluative word” coming from the inner as well as the outside world (my rumination, my friends, my supervisor) was like a knife wound to my self-esteem and self-efficacy, even if they were constructive. I felt unworthy to receive any feedback at all.

The Power of Community 

What happened next in my PhD journey had the power to transform my subjectivity and therefore my perceptions and beliefs about my own mental health and navigating academia: I started my fieldwork on the little island of Lampedusa, the Southern European/Italian border. My research aim was to understand how small border communities were coping with the growing “irregular” migration and, more specifically, how individuals and groups were grieving and commemorating migrants’ deaths at the Border. 

Even though I had always been interested in social issues (from migration to social class work conditions), I never engaged in first-hand experiences of any sort. The topic I chose completely, but silently, changed my attitude radically. I started to be practically involved in migrant struggles; I had to get my “hands dirty” with protests; in few words, I stopped being an ‘observer’ of social, political, and psychological processes, and I became an active ‘participant’. My perspective on the world had changed, and in doing so, I no longer felt isolated.

The more I met and interviewed activists at the border, the more I observed acts of solidarity towards people who suffered physical and psychosocial violence and severe human rights violations. More than that, the solidarity they enacted—despite all the attempts by States to criminalize it—constituted an act of resistance. Activists were reacting against societal organization forms that dehumanize people and reduce them to their economic value, increasing socio-economic inequalities and differently distributing the chances for safe living conditions. Far from being simply a resistance stance, activists and migrants (regardless of their status) performed new ways of being together, based on mutual exchange, reciprocity, and inclusiveness

This taught me about the power of communities and of struggling together to engage in low-scale, minimal, and proximal transformation of their own environment, in spite of large-scale, maximal, and distal sociopolitical processes which are usually out of their own management. Activists were trying to transform (or even eradicate, sometimes) the causes (societal structural inequalities) of border violence by working on its deadly, everyday effects (lack of humanity, empathy, caring). Where social organization used exclusion and closure, they referred to inclusion and openness. Shortly, they wanted to change ‘things’ with a bottom-up approach, focusing on ‘things’ taking place in their everyday environment. This empowered me to seek out my own PhD community.

Fighting for Better

As I progressed through my PhD, a second significant event happened to me. As the University of Padova is one of the biggest and most ancient in Europe, having more than 1,000 PhDs every year, it has an Academic Senate where the representatives of all categories join in this major Governmental Body. My colleagues, coming from all disciplines, voted and appointed me as their representative. This was an honorary and, frankly, a gruelling task.

The more I met PhD students from my University and took part in the Senate sessions, the more I started to take PhD students’ sides. I did that not only because my role required me to do so, but also to defend their rights, which I witnessed were—on most occasions—threatened. Unfair supervisors; an insane workload; a discriminatory Academic system; a broader scientific ‘market’ always in search for excellence and thus pushing individuals to their limits and making them constantly unstable; cuts to public research investments; precarity: all of that constituted serious social and institutional stressors. It simply was not that PhD students were at fault but the system. In all the circumstances, political factors, socioeconomic factors, and community factors were in fact culminating to create a range of stressors impacting their mental health. As a consequence, people internalized all these damaging processes, and blaming themselves for not being “good enough”. 

I learned in this moment that, socially speaking, our universities often see mental health as a ‘private affair’, as a ‘personal resource’, as an ‘individual good’ in the well-being market. Mental health concerns are pushed away from the public sphere and the social commitment—unloading all the burden on the subjects. Moreover, “good” mental health is usually defined by function, and as long as you can “function” within a certain social environment, then you are not causing the university a problem and are “fine”.  In short, if you look fine, you are (it’s easy to ignore the problem this way)– and we know this is not always the case. Thus being a PhD representative taught me about the socio-cultural practices and beliefs causing some of the affective, cognitive, and emotional patterns I was experiencing, allowing me to see that I was being affected by the environment I was in and this was not a personal failing.

I no more felt like a “total failure”, but just as someone who was trying to struggle towards his research goals in a difficult environment. I reframed many of my thoughts and feelings as pervasive effects of a quasi-failed system of academic research. I started to share my feelings and fears with “Others” and realised I was not alone. I realised that sharing could even impact change at an institutional level. 

Leading Change

It is clear that we must work together to improve academic mental health. Community action helps us in many ways. Collective action doesn’t only hold a protective function (providing a buffer between those in power and those without), but it also promotes our empowerment. Secondly, it reframes mental health issues as a social concern, encouraging change at senior institutional levels, resulting in gradual but meaningful environmental transformation. Lastly, being involved in community action helps us on a personal level. It enables us to not reduce our complex identities and subjectivities to just our roles, but provides a bigger picture, thus giving us the chance to constantly experiment and discover ourselves.

Ciro De Vincenzo

Ciro De Vincenzo is a clinical and community psychologist. He has a PhD in Social Sciences, and he lectures “Community Psychology” and “The Psychology of Social Phenomena” at the University of Padova. He works at the intersection of border, trauma, memory, and migration studies from a sociocultural and political psychological perspective. He is interested in understanding how marginalized communities or groups react to different types of violence and how they trigger societal transformation.