Mental health crisis in academia
My friend’s frustrations echo just one of the many issues faced by academics during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic, there was growing awareness of a mental health crisis in academia. In a study by The Graduate Assembly in 2014, 43-46% of science graduate students at UC Berkeley reported depression, while 50% of University of Arizona students report “more than average” stress (Smith & Brooks, 2015).
Graduate students are not alone in their mental health challenges. At all levels of academia, there are reports of lack of support, demands for high productivity, a cut-throat mentality, and the personal and professional consequences of addressing mental health issues. Many of these issues appear to be more heavily weighted on younger and early career academics (Bira et al., 2019). For non-tenured staff, the expectations to teach new courses, bring in research funding, take on graduate students, publish in high impact factor journals, and engage in new research can be overwhelming and lead to physical and mental health problems.
COVID-19 and mental health
Add to this mix the challenges of a global pandemic that has necessitated social isolation and the rapid learning of new communication, teaching and learning skills, all the while worrying about our own physical health and that of our loved ones. Like my philosopher friend, academics have had to learn new and time-consuming teaching practices and figure out novel ways to assess their students. Field and laboratory research has been put on hold, often to the detriment of time-sensitive research and, for some, uncertainty hangs over the continuation of research funding. Further, despite a desire for a return to ‘normality’, many are anxious about returning to campus, with the ongoing threat of COVID-19 variants hanging in the air and new social norms and regulations that must be adhered to.
Taking care of our mental health
It is, however, imperative that we take care of our mental health. Help is there, even if we do not always know how to access it. Bira et al. (2019) report that over the past few years there has been a growing understanding in higher education of mental health issues and the need to support academics. Now, mostly thanks to the global pandemic, there is a greater openness and understanding of the mental health challenges that academics face. A pre-pandemic survey of academics with mental illness or mental disabilities by Price et al. (2017) found that 70% of respondents had limited or no familiarity with the resources available to support them. Thanks to COVID-19, links to mental health, counseling, and support services are at the front and center of most university websites.
One of the most comprehensive and informative sites I have come across is an article on Inside Higher Ed by University of Wisconsin associate professor of counseling psychology, Mindi Thompson, in which she provides very clear advice about self-care while attending to professional academic duties during these trying times. She advises the following:
• Create boundaries around your consumption of media, social media, email and text messages
• Stay active and prioritize your physical and mental health
• Maintain connections with others
• Exercise patience, kindness, and compassion toward yourself and others
• Pay attention to your feelings and thoughts and know when to reach out for help
• Create structures that allow you to focus on select responsibilities and goals
We owe it to ourselves, our students, and our colleagues to take care of our mental health. This too shall pass and, if there can be any silver lining from the pandemic, it is that universities and all employers are more aware and supportive of the mental health needs of their staff.
Bira, L., Evans, T.M. & Vanderford, N.L. 2019. Mental health in academia: An invisible crisis. Physiology News Magazine, 115. https://doi.org/10.36866/pn.115.32
Price, M. et al. 2017. Disclosure of mental disability by college and university faculty: The negotiation of accommodations, supports, and barriers. Disability Studies Quarterly 37(2). https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v37i2.5487
Smith, E. & Brooks, Z. 2015. Graduate student mental health 2015. University of Arizona: National Association of Graduate-Professional Students Institute. nagps.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/NAGPS_Institute_mental_health_survey_report_2015.pdf
The Graduate Assembly. 2014. Graduate student happiness and well-being report. UC Berkeley. ga.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Well-Being-Report-Deck.pdf