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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Sexual Harassment: A Corrosive Disease by Anonymous

TW: Suicidal ideation

I am in my mentor’s office on a cold, rainy Friday afternoon before the holiday break. Tears are pouring down my face. I am unable to think straight and cannot tell right from wrong. A chill runs down my spine and I realise it has become impossible to do research. I am overwhelmed with dread at the thought of spending another year in my thesis lab, and writing a dissertation feels unimaginable. I feel trapped, isolated, and unwelcome, and suicidal thoughts have crept into my head. Over time, I have lost my purpose and wanted to quit science. I hit rock bottom. Sexual harassment has taken a heavy toll on me.

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In Conflict – The Impact of War on Social Scientists by Kacper Rekawek

“It was a Thursday, 24 February 2022. I got up and saw what was happening and that was it. For the next 72 hours, I would not sleep, I did not even attempt to. I worked the phones, the app messengers, the computer, everything. There were too many things to document, too many videos to watch, too many people to save. Only after these three days, sometime on Sunday, was I able to actually refocus on something more mundane such as lunch or dinner. It was brutal and tragic, but I could see things were not going their way. They blew it.” 

The above quote is from a colleague of mine, an academic who researches what can euphemistically be called “Russia studies.” The event he described in a conversation to me a few weeks later over an overpriced draft beer in Oslo, Norway, was the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “They” is a reference to the seemingly unstoppably advancing Russian army. 

I am a post-doctoral research fellow at the Center for Study of Extremism, C-Rex, at the University of Oslo. I study the issue of (far right) individuals who go and fight in foreign wars and are not motivated by financial gains to do so. Russo-Ukrainian war is my case study; since 2014, both sides have attracted some foreign fighters in general and also far-right fighters in particular. I am originally from Poland, although I have lived and worked in the UK, Slovakia and now Norway and held a string of positions not only in academia but also think tanks and the third sector. Since 2015, however, I have consistently published on the aforementioned issue, with my recently published book a seeming crowning achievement of a long-term research focus.  

Interestingly, until 2022 the war, waged by two neighbours of my native Poland, did not really affect me emotionally. Maybe it was my naivety, or maybe the fact that Russia was dressing it up as “civil war,” “war in Ukraine” and waged what was dubbed a “hybrid” conflict, or war short of war, and as such I was able to detach myself from the atrocities. It seemed far away from me, as Donetsk, the conflict’s epicenter, is hundreds of miles to the East of Poland and after February 2015, and the so-called Minsk II Agreements, casualties were relatively light. In effect, this was becoming a classic “frozen conflict” which would remain unresolved for years (if not decades) to come. 

All of this changed in February 2022 when my Ukrainian friends found themselves sitting in basements while under Russian bombardment, while others frantically tried to enlist in the country’s armed forces or were sending their families Westwards to Poland so they could be spared the horrors of war. No longer was I a semi-detached observer of this war—but I only realized this months later. 

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The Glorification of Overwork in Academia and its Impacts on our Collective Wellbeing by Jenna Mittelmeier

Wellbeing is something that I have had a complicated relationship with throughout my life, although perhaps without always having the vocabulary to label it. This became most salient during the second year of my PhD, when it felt like a blackout curtain suddenly dropped and the world became, quietly and without fanfare, simply a different place. It took me the better part of a decade to recognize this, though. 

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Learning Courage: On the Unexpected Benefits of Examining My Anxiety by Alex Mendelsohn

Most of the stories I read about mental illness portray it as this hellish, horrendous thing that you must wait out. While in the darkest throes of mine, I have found it difficult to read these stories. If my experience was entirely a waste, how could I find the motivation to keep going?

I have found that the prevalent feeling during my illness has indeed been of time wasted. However, I think there are significant benefits if remission is found through medical treatment. I realised that the strategies I learned in order to stay alive, whilst should not be needed as medical intervention should be accessible and a first port of call, may be truly useful to others. 

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My Mental Health Journey: Reflections from India by Ritika Mahajan

India stands fourth in the number of PhDs awarded annually. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Report, 27000 candidates completed a PhD in India in 2017. This number is equal to 10 per cent of the total PhDs across G20 nations. Between 2011 and 2017, PhD enrollments in the country jumped by 50 per cent, and articles were written about the mad rush to attend university. In particular, the authors of these articles raised concerns about research relevance, quality, authenticity and originality.

Recently, mental health issues also attracted attention when authors of a study conducted among PhD students in two Indian public universities reported that 70 per cent of respondents suffered mild to severe depressive disorders. The cases were severe among students of economically weaker sections, those who earned less than 250 dollars a month or were less proficient in English. Despite this, the mental health of PhD students in India is still a stigmatized issue, where many deny that there is a problem. In my opinion, this is why those of us that feel able to speak out must do so. In this blog, I share insights into the challenges I have faced both at the start of my journey into academia and now as I begin to supervise students. I hope this is of some value to PhDs and new academics in India and beyond.

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The Difficulties of Unwanted Childlessness in Academia by Anonymous

Writing a book in academia and trying to become pregnant can be very similar. It’s like trying to get two babies, two very different babies at once. You need perseverance; you need an idea about a future in which you succeed in achieving your goal. Both are full of ups and downs, hope and set-backs. Both can be incredible exhausting, sometimes almost too much. There can be this feeling of not doing enough, not being enough: not writing enough and at the same time having a body that does not do what you wish for. Failing on all levels. 

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Welcome to 100 Blogs: The Voices of Our Authors

We are excited to welcome readers to the 100th Voices of Academia blog! When we started out, we could not have anticipated reaching 100 blogs or creating such a vibrant, diverse and supportive #AcademicMentalHealth community. Along with many other accounts/organisations such as @OpenAcademics, @DragonflyMH, @ThePhDPlace and @ThinkAcademia (to mention just a few!), we are incredibly proud to be part of the movement toward creating a mentally healthier academia for all.  

At this point in time, we realise that some readers may be wondering about the future of Voices of Academia and whether it has served its purpose. Why should we continue publishing blog submissions? Is there really a need to keep sharing stories after reaching such a milestone? We argue that the answer is “yes”. As mentioned in our blog to celebrate two years of Voices of Academia, both research and anecdotal evidence indicate that stress and mental illness remain major issues of concern in higher education settings. For example, recent articles in both the popular press and academic journals have highlighted the unhappy experiences of many PhD students as well as Early Career Academics, and stories of faculty burnout are common. Yet we know people are often reluctant to discuss such issues, especially experiences of mental illness, in higher education settings. We believe it is through sharing our lived experiences that we can connect with others, learn lessons and coping strategies, and help to reduce the stigma about mental illness and related issues in the ivory tower.  Indeed, feedback from our readers tells us that reading the blogs has helped them feel less alone and, in some cases, inspired them to reach out for help. It is these stories that encourage us to keep going.  

What will we do moving forward? While we still hope to publish submissions in future, there are considerable costs associated with running the blog. We have an active fundraiser and we would welcome any contribution, large or small, to help ensure the future of Voices of Academia. Although our team of volunteers is entirely unpaid, we would like to continue paying authors for their work and the emotional labour associated with disclosing their lived experiences. Any donations will also help to cover the costs of maintaining the website and future fundraising efforts. At the moment, we are still far from our fundraising goal, so if you would like to support us, we would be extremely grateful!

Instead of writing a full blog post this week, we thought instead we would highlight the mental health stories of our 100 bloggers to date, highlighting a small, powerful section of each of their blogs, and hopefully encourage you to read them in full.

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‘Honey, I shrunk the postgraduate kids!’ – Disability, Precarity, and Support in Academia by Athanasia Francis

 TW: Suicide ideation, Images of hair loss, Images of medication

Collecting my hair falling in batches around me was something I slowly came to accept as a daily ritual, as was the case with the dozens of pills when I could afford the prescriptions.  I have been suffering from a chronic neurological condition and its fluctuations are debilitating, even when I look ‘fine’ on the outside. Some of the ways I experience my condition include muscle fatigue, joints locking suddenly, lack of coordination, memory gaps, week-long migraines while constantly in pain, disorientation and brain fog; in short, a body on permanent false alarm mode and attacking itself. 

I’ve been also severely depressed with relapses since my early twenties in a constant post-traumatic downward spiral, which coincided with twelve years in academia. Eventually, it became difficult to tell which condition was triggering the other. My mental state and physicality were tangled into a messy knot that was at times too unbearable to break through. I had come to the brink of quitting many times, quitting whatever career ahead, quitting my PhD, quitting any remaining faith and effort, quitting life. 

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From Kryptonite to Superpower: My Story of Being an Empath in Academia by Claudia Mirretta Barone

My name is Claudi. I am a scientist and I am “too sensitive”, “emotional”, and often “take things too personally”; at least, that’s what others have told me all my life. This made me believe that there was something wrong with me and that I didn’t have what it takes to be successful in academia, or life in general. Because of this, I have suffered from my supposed vulnerability and weakness and I have repeatedly tried to figure out what was wrong with me and how to fix it – fix ME – by numbing myself, because that was what I felt others expected me to do. 

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