Mental Health in Academia: What’s Happening and What Can We Do to Address It

Mental Health in Academia: What’s Happening and What Can We Do to Address It

As a psychologist whose training lies in both clinical and forensic areas, I feel a strong urge to write about mental health in academia, which, like gender equality, is not arguably not novel issue – a fair amount of people have heard of it. Yet, it still remains a critical issue, perhaps more so now than ever before. 

That’s what is happening, in my view, to the issues regarding mental health, especially within academia. A number of research has been done in order to enhance efforts to prevent and treat mental disorder within higher education. But then, it seems that everything still is in the same place.

If you think that it isn’t like that anymore, why then do we keep hearing PhD students saying things like: ‘My supervisor told me that a PhD student should have, at least, two moments of depression throughout the PhD. Otherwise, they don’t deserve it.’

This is serious. And this was said in one of the top universities in the UK. It’s only one example, I know. And if we were to count the number of cases where this happened and the number of cases where supervisors have been extremely supportive, I’d like to think that the ratio was less than 10 per cent overall. However, let me remind you of biases, namely availability biases. You’ll concentrate probably more on a percentage of 90 per cent of satisfied students than on those other 10 per cent; unless you are part of the 10 per cent.

Thankfully, throughout my academic degrees and professional practices, I’ve had always extremely supportive supervisors. I don’t believe in luck, but being something I couldn’t control (like someone’s temper) I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to work with supportive, motivating and brilliant people until now.

But I’ve also worked with social risk populations and in that type of work we used to have this premise: ‘Mission accomplished happens when you change one person in a group of 100.’

It might be a biased perspective since professionals in this field focus mostly on successes. But, the main point is that there are areas where percentages may not be the most accurate way to observe if something is needed or not.

So far, we’ve only discussed the need to promote awareness for mental well-being within academia, specifically to PhD students. But are they the only ones suffering within such a context? I believe they are not.

One can observe the stress levels that lecturers and even professors still have. Here I’m not talking about the people that enjoy stress in their lives, nor am I thinking about the types of stress that, although it may disturb an individual’s well-being, helps them focus on their targets almost in the same way as when people work without noticing time passing by (i.e., the flow momentum).

I am talking about rough strategies that university senior staff use to deal with the challenges of different things such as: academic assessment (TEF or REF); the bureaucracy they need to deal with which makes them lose their time for research for instance; and obviously personal issues, after all, academics (both students or staff) are people, and have their own problems.

I also realise that the stigma of going to a therapist is even greater within academia. As a psychologist, it would be strange not to search for professional help within this field. I’ve had it before for professional reasons, and this time, on my first year of my PhD, I was having counselling for personal reasons and of course this was the right thing to do. Yet the stigma exists, unfortunately.

People think that seeking for help is a sign of weakness. However, I firmly believe the opposite. People need a certain amount of strength to do three important things:  (i) acknowledge they need help; (ii) seek possible solutions either isolated or by talking with colleagues, friends or even strangers; and, (iii) starting a therapeutic process. Probably the first and the third points are the most important and difficult to achieve.

Universities have recently begun to implement programmes to promote well-being and address mental health issues among students. It is a great way to disseminate these services which existed before but which people didn’t know about or had social beliefs that were somehow erroneous.

It might be interesting to have a look at the services that universities have, which are normally free, and this is a very interesting point as therapy, although can have different prices according to the type of the professional, is always a way to save money, even more if you are a student.

Here are some tips that I can share:

  • Talk with friends. Talk with your family. Talk with strangers if you feel more comfortable with that. But talk. Research has demonstrated that panic attacks and anxiety can be relieved when people talk about their feelings. Among other variables, talking and exploring your feelings will make you feel better.
  • Talk the way you feel more comfortable. Recently, I have been involved in the creation of a platform that offers psychological counselling exclusively for expats. The premise is not to isolate them from the context where they are living. As for me, a fair number of academic expats work within a multicultural environment. However, sometimes people may feel less understood when they share their thoughts in a language which is not theirs.
  • Seek information. Don’t feel you are the only person in the world with a problem. It’s not the moment of being egocentric. There are a wide group of people that experience mental health issues, more so in academia. A recent study assessed the prevalence of mental health problems of 3,659 PhD students, where researchers found out that 51 per cent experienced at least two symptoms of mental health conditions and 32 per cent experienced at least four symptoms.
  • Fight the stigma and open yourself to that. Even if you have a background in psychology, you must still acknowledge that. I felt it myself. I was not expecting my first panic attack, but when it happened, I realised, it was time to start my therapy.
  • Talk with your supervisor. Expect him to be empathetic with you. If for any reason this doesn’t happen, seek help somewhere else. This works also for staff in my opinion. Talk with colleagues or heads of departments. If there isn’t positive feedback, seek solutions elsewhere. Don’t get yourself in that downward spiral. People will sometimes not understand what is going on with you and they might start to distance themselves from you, thinking you are isolating yourself on purpose.
  • Try and stay active. Mens sana in corpore sano. It’s always a great way to feel better with yourself and to boost your health. Also, eat well. It’s always a great mojo to keep into account.

Apart from those, just realise that the world is not ending tomorrow. That the research you are doing can be innovative, but will not be the last research of the world. And even if the world ends or even if the research you are doing is the last bit of possible research on earth, would that be as enjoyable as it could if you felt better now?

Francisco Valente Gonçalves is a clinical and forensic psychologist working as an Early Career Researcher within the INTREPID Forensics Programme funded by a Marie Curie scholarship at the University of Leicester. Throughout his PhD, he has been working closely with forensic laboratories across the world providing suggestions for quality standards and carrying consultation on topics such as experts recruitment. Besides forensic sciences, Francisco has been involved in international projects associated with psychology and recently launched Rumo, an online platform that provides psychological services exclusively for expats. 



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