We’re all human in academia

This is not the post I had intended to write and send out this week, but nonetheless I felt inspired and like this was what wanted and needed to be shared on this occasion.

I recently requested for members of staff within a university department to complete an informal, anonymous online questionnaire about their experiences with mental health, both during their own PhD studies and also now as an academic. What follows are some of the insights I have had as a result of being privy to these experiences, ultimately, we are all human and though we may put others on a pedestal, they too have their own issues and difficulties to manage and cope with.

Difficulties during PhD Study

Of the 21 people who answered this question, nine of them answered that they had experienced some form of mental health difficulty or condition during their PGR studies. For some, this was an exacerbation of a pre-existing condition, however for some, the stress of PGR study triggered difficulties such as an anxiety disorder.

The most common difficulties experienced during PhD study by these academics included depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties and loneliness.

What helped during PhD Study?

There were a number of things that helped these academics during their PhD studies and lots of examples were given. Upon looking at the suggestions it was clear that self-care was vital and individuals commented that things were often improved or at least easier to manage when they were exercising, sleeping well, eating well and trying to maintain a work/life balance.

In addition to these factors, a common theme was flexibility within the study schedule, and this meant for some extended deadlines, opting to study part-time or taking a break from academia for a few months. Social support, unsurprisingly, was a very important aspect of coping with mental health difficulties during this time and this support primarily came from friends, family, supportive colleagues and supportive supervisors.

Others commented that getting formal support in the form of psychotherapy to medication helped them to manage their conditions and being busy or volunteering helped to maintain perspective.

Difficulties during professional academic work

Of the 20 people who answered this question, four said that they currently experience mental health difficulties or conditions. The most common was anxiety closely followed by depression, stress, lack of motivation and debilitating fear.

What helps during professional academic work?

Again, lots of suggestions were given as to how academics support themselves and manage their own difficulties and included concentrating on things that matter, speaking with colleagues, upholding self-care strategies, seeking professional help, working with a suitable mentor and maintaining work-life balance.

What does this tell us?

This tells us that rightly or wrongly, it is not an unusual or rare experience to deal with mental health challenges during PhD study or beyond in the world of academia. Some of the people who answered this questionnaire have been a lecturer for a few years, others have been a lecturer for decades.

What this information tells us is that though we might think academics are infallible, that they have got their life together and manage everything perfectly that is simply not true. Yes, there will be academics like that, but we all have difficult experiences which surface at different points in our lives. Indeed one academic highlighted that they wish they had known prior to PGR study that it is normal to experience difficulties during a PhD, and that the time at which people struggle can differ. For some it is the spaciousness of first year and others it is the stresses of final year. This highlights the importance of not comparing our own experiences, progress or strengths to other people, but to know ourselves well enough to know when we are doing well and we are working in a way that suits us – on all levels.

Many academics emphasised that they wish they had known that it was ok to ask for help and to admit they were struggling, and I think this is something that is still a problem for students and academics now. There is a fear of disclosing our own experiences and I feel that it is really important to dig into what this fear is about, what we are scared of and what we think having a mental health condition or difficulty says about us. I know for me, it was always a case of being ‘weak’, of not having ‘control’ of my life or my brain. I can now see that the opposite is true, my struggles with mental health have made me stronger and more resilient than ever and I am improving my relationship with my mind every single day.

As a supervisor, what helps you to support a student?

My final question to academics was that if they were supervisor, what helped them to support a student through their studies if they were experiencing mental health difficulties. Many highlighted, and rightly so, that it wasn’t their job to offer a high level of support but that they were happy to act as signposts to services, and that being aware of these services was important to enable them to provide this information for their students. They also stated that it was helpful to try to manage the students workload to suit them, as there is flexibility within a PhD.

However, as pointed out by many of those who completed the questions I asked, in order for this support to be provided the supervisor needed to know that the student was struggling and they need to be made aware in order to act accordingly. Obviously, this can be an extremely daunting thing to do, however many academics highlighted that it wasn’t important to know details, but just that something was going on in order to develop a strategy to move forward.

Final thoughts…

Ultimately, this informal survey revealed to me something that I had strongly suspected – mental health conditions and difficulties can affect anyone in academia. Young, fresh PhD students, final year professional doctorates and even that top professor that seems to always nail everything they do. We never know what is going on under the surface and I have learnt from this survey that some lecturers feel sick, have sleepless nights and border on panic attacks ahead of giving lectures – but how would we ever know that? The truth is, we can’t. And we cannot compare ourselves to others without all the information we need to make an accurate comparison. Therefore, it’s fruitless to even do so.

We are all on our own journey’s and we can only ever know ourselves fully, no one else. Which is such a gift if you think about it! You are uniquely you and only you can know that! So it’s incredibly important to focus on ourselves during this period (and all of our lives), to be aware of what is going on internally for us and to remember that we are worthy of reaching out for support, and that in some cases it’s absolutely imperative that we do.

Take care and until next time 🙂


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