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Academic black dog

Published: 14 Jan 2019
Category: Equality, diversity and inclusion
By Edward Wickstead

The idea that mental health issues are increasingly common amongst university students compared to the general public has gained traction in recent years. For example, in 2017 the All Party Parliamentary Group of Students found that 69% of students have felt depressed within an academic year – a percentage almost three times higher than that reported for the elderly.

The identification of this problem has led to the much-needed development of support systems for students whilst they are studying towards furthering their promising careers. However, psychological distress is intensifying at a much deeper level within our university culture, with the urgency to find a solution continuing to grow.

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. Compared to their students, research into the poor mental health of academics has received little attention, despite its clear importance. Because of this, some academics may feel that depression, or the “black dog” – a term used by Winston Churchill to describe his own struggles – is unshakeable. However, as with anyone suffering from mental illness, understanding that you are not alone 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 a source 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 increasing demand to publish, has led to many academics suffering with some form of mental health disorder. A 2017 survey published in the EMS Community Medical journal highlights this, wherein it was identified that 43% of academics (including senior lecturers) exhibited symptoms of at least a mild mental health disorder. This is nearly twice the level of prevalence in comparison to the general population.

An Australian study further validates this finding, supporting that the rate of mental illness amongst academic staff was up to four times higher than the general public.

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 options are available, such as the ability 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 difficulties, which included the completion of a “Stigma scale”. The study highlighted that “silence” surrounding mental health problems permeates throughout the university culture, impacting on help seeking behaviours alongside the support and recovery of affected individuals. It is not surprising then, that only 6.7% of academic staff in the United Kingdom have ever opened up about a mental health condition.

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 illness.

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. Financial pressures are likely to take a large responsibility, and this proverbial belt will continue to tighten over the next few years following the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

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, highlighting the often insurmountable workload that academics are expected to complete.

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 highlights the benefit of exercise, wherein academics who took part in 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week, were more likely to report lower levels of distress. Thus, the encouragement to develop and participate in 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 Society’s blog talking about my personal experience of battling with mental illness whilst completing my PhD.

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About the author

Ted is a neuroscience PhD student studying at Queen Mary University of London and the University of Westminster. His research focuses on the role of inflammation in neurodegenerative disease. He has a BSc from King’s College London, which included a year studying at the National University of Singapore. He is a STEM ambassador, local group representative for the British Neuroscience Association (BNA), alongside being a blogger, writer and advocate for mental health awareness.