Academia is experiencing a mental health crisis

It’s common knowledge that academia is experiencing a mental health crisis at all levels. Informal support networks (peer-to-peer) as well as faculty and instructor support are a place to start working but it isn’t enough. Systemic changes are necessary.

Academia is suffering a mental health crisis. Anxiety and depression are prevalent at all levels: from undergrads, to master’s and PhD students, recently minted doctorates, postdoctoral fellows, all the way to adjuncts, associate professors, and even tenured professors (Lashuel 2020). The conditions in which we work are dominated by a hypercompetitive culture; individualism and—at the same time—loneliness; depending on the field, scant resources; constant internal and external pressure to perform and prove one’s worth; the need to juggle coursework, research, grant-writing, teaching, publishing, mentoring, and service responsibilities all at once; the lack of ‘normal’ working hours; crunched timelines; job insecurity during grad school up until tenure; the list goes on… These conditions make it very difficult for anyone to have a healthy work-life balance. This is the perfect recipe for a lack of mental wellbeing.

Some might experience stress, others might be distressed, and many will suffer a crisis, even if in silence. Few studies have investigated the mental health state of academics, and those which have provide alarming results. We know the stats: graduate students around the world report rates of depression and anxiety that are six times higher than those in the general public (Evans et al. 2018). In a recent survey in which 1,685 faculty members from 12 institutions across the United States, 9.5% of faculty screened positive for symptoms of major depression (BUSPH, MCP, HMN 2021). So, what are we doing about this? What measures have been taken with the information we have at hand? If we know this is the state of the field and no measures have been taken, why isn’t anything changing?

Asking for peer-to-peer support isn’t the solution. Informal support might help: one might feel temporary relief after ranting and commiserating with one’s student/postdoc/faculty support network about the issues one might be going through or yelling at the void on Twitter under a myriad of hashtags like #AcademicChatter #AcademicTwitter or #AcademicMentalHealth, but this isn’t enough. Administrators should not put mental health assistance on instructors or supervisors. Faculty or teaching assistants are not gatekeepers of student mental health, as Inside Higher Ed tweet seems to imply with its headline “Faculty: Gatekeepers of student mental health?”

As a Teaching Assistant, I may be the first point of contact for a distressed undergrad student, but I’m not necessarily the best-equipped to assist them. I have attended training workshops myself and I’m happy to attend more to expand my abilities, I list in my syllabus all the on-campus resources I know about, I’m always willing to lend an ear—and I have done very much so under remote learning conditions, perhaps at the expense of my own mental wellbeing—and I put in place or advocate for deadline accommodations. For some of my students who are experiencing various levels of stress due to coursework this might suffice, but for others it won’t. I haven’t been professionally trained to treat mental health issues and, for that reason, my ability to help is limited. If I was going to surpass my boundaries, it could end up doing more harm than good.

We don’t need more meditation apps that brush over the core issue. Systemic changes need to happen within academia but this is in no way an easy task to undertake. Academia’s working conditions should be rethought from scratch: for example, we should normalize 9-5 routines, needing help, failing, taking weekends off, going on holidays, livable salaries, not having to relocate every two years, having children, and taking time off when needed. Enacting changes within departments might be easier and more productive than expecting changes within the university as a whole. Changes within specific departments may be triggered through open discussions about mental health, the effects of stress, anxiety, depression and burnout within the department’s community, and the need to fight the stigmatization of these experiences. If you’re not sure this is something affecting your department or your working community, ask the people who are part of it! Regular departmental climate surveys help figure out what are the biggest challenges as perceived by the department members and should be carried out particularly following internal or external events which might create or exacerbate existing wellbeing challenges. 

More information

Boston University’s School of Public Health, the Mary Christie Foundation and the Healthy Minds Network. The Role of Faculty in Student Mental Health (April 7, 2021)

Evans, T. et al. “Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education.” Nature Biotechnology 36, 282–284 (2018).

Lashuel, Hilal A. “Mental Health in Academia: What about faculty?” eLife (2020).

Resources—a place where to start

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