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How to Stop Minimising Mental Illness: Bridging Individual Responsibility and Systemic Transformation

  • 10 October 2022
  • By Anna Meier

HEPI is running a series of blogs on the changing faces of academia in collaboration with the British Academy. In recognition of World Mental Health Day, Anna Meier, Assistant Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, shares her thoughts on the subject.

The first time I met my new Head of School at my first job post-PhD, I cried at her for half an hour. I had just moved from the US to the UK a month after defending my PhD thesis. This should have been a celebratory and exciting time, albeit a chaotic one. Yet I was realising rapidly that my PhD, which had prepared me for a research career, had taught me very little about the other two-thirds of my job. I was thousands of pounds in debt, thanks to the financial cost of staying in academia and years of underpayment as a PhD student. And, like many early-career researchers (ECRs), I was managing depression and anxiety, two illnesses I had since adolescence. There was nothing left to do but break down.

Rates of anxiety and depression among ECRs are startlingly high. In a 2018–19 survey of over 3,000 UK PhD students, 71 per cent reported experiencing symptoms of at least mild depression. A similar amount, 74 per cent, reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety. For about 40 per cent of respondents, these symptoms are moderate to severe. The problem is already evident at undergraduate level, with the HEPI / AdvanceHE Student Academic Survey (2022)  finding that of the 30 per cent of students who considered leaving their institution, the main reason (34 per cent) was their emotional or mental health.

The numbers of PhD students experiencing depression and anxiety are significantly above the national averages for both conditions, with about 17 per cent of UK citizens living with depression and 12 per cent with anxiety as of 2022. Different from feeling sad or stressed, depression and anxiety are serious and often chronic health conditions that become legally classified as disabilities when they affect day-to-day life for a year or longer. And in academia, they are extremely, frighteningly common, hence my focus on them among a slew of other mental illnesses ECRs may manage.

Despite the frequency with which they occur, I do not know of a single ECR with depression or anxiety who has not had their illness minimised at least once by a supervisor, manager, or other person in a position of power over them. I am fortunate that my Head of School has not done so, but while I was a PhD student I encountered numerous lecturers and professors who questioned or even outright mocked mental illness among ECRs. Concerningly, many of these people would probably have considered themselves allies, or at least progressive in their views on other social issues. They did not doubt that mental illness was real. They did, however, want to know how to differentiate between students with mental illness and those who were ‘faking it’, and they would present policy proposals that placed the entire burden on the mentally ill. Minimising mental illness is often unintentional, but the absence of intention does not change the harmful impact on those struggling to find their footing in higher education.

To complicate matters, though many ECRs begin their academic journeys already managing mental illness, others may experience symptoms for the first time during their postgraduate studies. This creates difficulties when discussing solutions. I have been told, again by well-intentioned people, that decreasing my workload would solve my mental illness, because surely the pressures of my job have caused it. I cannot say that my workload helps, but my symptoms predate it by decades. 

For others, however, the realities of a contemporary academic job have indeed led them to experience depression and anxiety for the first time. Living on precarious contracts, as one-third of UK teaching staff do, creates an environment of constant uncertainty and insecurity that can easily snowball into serious anxiety. The inadequacy of preparation offered by many doctoral programmes can leave new staff flailing to complete tasks they are supposed to be trained for, adding to feelings of inadequacy and impostor syndrome. Tackling mental health in higher education, then, is both a matter of dismantling exploitative structures close to home and participating in larger societal efforts to increase access to mental health treatment and divorce shame from mental illness.

In the same vein, I suggest that many existing recommendations about how academic departments can become less mentally unhealthy places are useful but are pitched at the wrong level. Mental illness is a system-wide issue, and one that is exacerbated by interpersonal interactions. Accordingly, academic staff, including and especially well-intentioned academic staff, need training on how to discuss mental health issues so they do not inadvertently cause colleagues to be worse off. Anyone involved in mentoring or pastoral care has a vested interest in educating themselves about mental health. In a sector that devalues acts of collective care in favour of solitary research successes, devoting time to learning in service of supporting each other is both a reclamation of control and an act of resistance. The onus to take responsibility and lead is with those with job security and seniority: in other words, those who risk less by restructuring their work priorities. Furthermore, Human Resources departments need to work with mental health services on campus to establish a system of disability accommodations for mentally ill staff who need them to do their jobs, just as some students need accommodations to fully access their studies.

The structural issues facing ECRs reflect those in wider society. Higher education is far from the only industry paying a large segment of its workers below a living wage. Abuse directed at non-white, non-cisgender male, international, and disabled colleagues is common in every sector. More specifically, the minimisation of mental illness, whether stoked by exploitation or caused by it in the first place, continues to be a cultural norm. 

My own case illustrates this interaction. A visa system designed not just for the wealthy; living wages as standard for all employees of all ranks; and proper appreciation of teaching and pastoral care as deserving of appropriate training  would not, by themselves, have prevented my breakdown in my Head of School’s office. But they would have given me capacity to manage my mental health rather than scrambling to prevent things from spilling over. Real solutions to the mental health crisis in higher education require investment in and advocacy for structural change alongside localised initiatives. There is still much work to be done.

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