The Tale of the Academic Black Dog.

Image: Matej.

The idea that mental health issues are more common amongst university students has gained traction in recent years. Identifying this problem has led to the much-needed development of support systems for students whilst they study towards furthering their promising careers. However, psychological distress is running rampant at a much deeper level within our university culture, wherein the urgency cannot be understated. 

I am talking about the academics – the pillars of higher education. Yet, despite their obvious essentiality to students’ success, they are often overlooked by the people they teach. Comparatively to their students, research into the poor mental health of academics has received little attention, despite its clear importance. As with any individual, if you suffer in silence, understanding that you aren’t the only person with a seemingly unshakeable black dog can provide a form of release from some of the distress you may be feeling.

Acknowledge the Academic

During my undergraduate degree, I inevitably looked towards my lecturers as sources of extensive knowledge. I was always fascinated by their research and scientific interests. Yet, I never considered the amount of stress that they were likely under, and the personal impact associated with this. In many scenarios, the increasing workload of academics, alongside the lack of job security and the extensive demand to publish, has led to many academics suffering with some form of mental health disorder. A 2017 survey highlights this, wherein it was identified that 43% of academics (including senior and principal lecturers) exhibited symptoms of at least a mild mental health disorder1. This is nearly twice the level of prevalence in comparison to the general population. An Australian study further validates this, finding that the rate of mental illness amongst academic staff was up to four times higher2

Suffering with mental health difficulties will predictably hinder professional performance. Nevertheless, the support options available for academics remains rather limited. Many universities offer mental health services, but these are primarily aimed at students. Some services are available, such as the option to see an occupational nurse, but information regarding these services are often obscure and difficult to find.

The Stigma Survives

In 2014 a survey was carried out to determine the attitudes and experiences of students and staff surrounding mental health problems, which included the completion of a “stigma scale”. The study highlighted that “silence” surrounding mental health issues permeates throughout the university culture, impacting on help seeking behaviours alongside the support and recovery of affected individuals3. It is not surprising then, that only 6.7% of academic staff in the United Kingdom have ever opened up about a mental health condition4.

The Guardian online have a blog entitled Academics Anonymous, whereby academics can discuss work difficulties without disclosing their identity. One such post in 2015 suggested that HR departments within many universities remain unsympathetic and often fail to recognise a mental health disorder as a legitimate illness5

Overworked and Underpaid

Clearly more needs to be done to support our academics. Structural changes are desperately needed to address many of the factors associated with poor mental health, such as job security, pay and work load. Unfortunately, these changes are unlikely to happen quickly. The high costs of education put many institutions under extraordinary pressure to satisfy students and their parents with educational excellence, with this putting further stress on academics. In one example from 2017, some “overworked” lecturers at Queen Mary University London were caught sleeping in their offices overnight, before being threatened with disciplinary action6 – which would only result in further psychological distress.

Supportive Strategies

Like the work currently used to support the wellbeing of students, academics need more information surrounding mental health to help change their attitudes towards seeking support. One study emphasises the benefit of exercise, where academics were more likely to report lower levels of distress if they undertook 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week1. Thus, the creation of physical activity options for staff, such as free exercise facilities and subsidised cycle to work schemes may provide some benefit.

Regardless of the strategies selected, we all need to be aware of the non-selective nature of mental illness. It affects men and women from all backgrounds, in all professions, and at all stages of life. We need to understand this before working together to provide strength and support when it comes to fighting back against mental illness. For students, I have previously written an article on the BPS blog talking about my personal experience of battling with mental illness whilst completing my PhD, which can be accessed here.

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