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.

Untreated depression: It will damage your brain.

Image: Kat Jayne

It is a scary prospect, but it is something that has accumulated serious momentum. From a scientific point of view, I have to admit I do find it fascinating. However, from a health perspective, this is rather worrying. The conclusions being drawn? Untreated depression may be causing brain degeneration.

Considering one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, this might raise concern. It becomes even more alarming with the publication of a recent study highlighting that approximately 35% of people newly diagnosed with depression refused to seek treatment. Without professional help, how long can depression toxify and contaminate an individual’s identity? Easily an entire lifetime. Not seeking help for prolonged periods of sadness or emotional absence may not be just affecting your character, as was often thought for decades. 

The ‘all in the mind’ mentality is dead. The divide between physiology and psychology was clearly defined for many years. When patients were physically unwell – because of say, a broken bone or arthritis – any accompanying mental health instabilities were waived off. Depression often accompanied these ailments (and still does, of course), but the diagnostic significance of such was irrelevant. If a patient suffering from a chronic disorder like arthritis said they were depressed, the general consensus amongst medical practitioners was: ‘well you would be, wouldn’t you?’. The same conclusion was always drawn. The patient was simply depressed as a consequence of the pain associated with their arthritis, or their broken leg, and so forth. No real attention looked into the other potentiality; what if the depression causes physiological ailments? What if a psychological disturbance could be having serious negative effects on the body?

In the 21stcentury, the argument for this is strong. Chronic, untreated depression appears to have a degenerative effect on the brain, damaging it from the inside. Here I want to highlight some key pieces of research which link depression to neurodegeneration. The idea here is to help us all understand just how important seeking assistance might be if you think yourself or a loved one might be suffering from a chronic depressive episode. Trying out different methods to combat depression will be beneficial both for emotional stability and life fulfillment, but also for the health of our brains, too.

A major finding was published when discovering differences in the brain scans of depressed and non-depressed patients. Looking at cases of major (clinical diagnosis of chronic) depression which had lasted for more than a decade, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario, Canada identified that during episodes of major depression, the patients’ brains would show signs of inflammation. The study group identified that a key protein associated with the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) inflammatory response was approximately 30% higher in the brains of people who lived with depression for more than a decade. However, this isn’t the only study to report such a finding. Another study published in 2016 looked at the whole-body levels of CRP (another biological marker of inflammation) in patients with depression and those without. The observational studyidentified that depressed individuals exhibited CRP levels more than 30% higher than those without depression.

The results presented here are startling, collectively indicating that we may need to change our thinking about depression and its effects. The evidence strongly affirms that depression truly is a biologically based disorder, rather than something that only exists in the field of psychology. But how does this link to degeneration of the brain?

Whilst inflammation is used to protect the body from infection amongst other functions, excessive inflammation can cause extensive cellular damage. Chronic inflammation within the brain has been linked to several destructive neurodegenerative diseases. One of which is Parkinson’s disease, which primarily manifests itself as a movement disorder, wherein patients begin to show signs of slowed movement (bradykinesia), until movement becomes practically impossible without medication. This primary symptom is caused by the destruction of neurons in the portion of the brain which is essential for movement. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure.

Whilst the contribution of inflammation to Parkinson’s disease does not appear to be the primary causation, in Alzheimer’s disease it may be a different story entirely. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common neurodegenerative disease in the world. In the United States alone, approximately 5.7 million peopleare currently suffering with the disease, which is primarily associated with progressive and severe memory loss. Again, there is currently no cure. Recent researchpublished in the Lancetnow appears to highlight neuroinflammation as a central cause of Alzheimer’s disease, with many otherstudies further supporting this idea.

Multiple lines of research therefore support the idea that ignoring a potential major depressive episode could have considerably devastating consequences for the long-term health of the brain. What can we do to fight back? Alongside seeking professional support, as little as 20 minutes of exercisecan reduce your bodily levels of inflammation. This is alongside the general health benefits of exercise, including reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and cancer. Diet is the next big consideration. There are several foods which should be avoided due to their contribution towards inflammation, including red meat and refined carbohydrates. On the other hand, there are many foods which are considered to be anti-inflammatory, including green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, fatty fish like salmon, and a range of berries. A more exhaustive list of pro- and anti-inflammatory foods can be found here. Supporting this switch in diet, women whose diets include more foods which trigger inflammation and fewer foods which restrain inflammation have up to a 41% increased risk of being diagnosed with depressionthan those who mostly eat a less inflammatory diet.

Depression is a biological disorder and we all need to take this into consideration. Its link to inflammation and bodily damage cannot be underestimated, and it is something we must consider when either ourselves or a loved one is currently suffering a major depressive episode. If you are adamant about not seeing a professional (I highly advise you do, however), exercising more and switching up our diets may provide an answer that we desperately need.