Special Issue: Mental Health in Academia - Understanding and overcoming the mental health crisis in academia

Newsletter

While the challenges faced by academics are not new, years of career stress, competitive culture, egocentric mentalities and lack of kindness among peers have contributed to the adverse mental health of academics. To reverse the trend of the ‘Great Resignation’ in academia, strategies and policies must be implemented to improve the well-being of academics and set an example for society.

Pavanee Annasawmy,

a personal account

From humble beginnings in Mauritius Island as a first-generation student, to a COFUND BIENVENÜE MSCA postdoctoral fellow, Pavanee Annasawmy has been navigating academia in the United States and Europe for the past 10 years. She is a biological oceanographer studying the physical mechanisms influencing biological processes in deep-sea ecosystems using a wide range of methods and techniques. Her COFUND BIENVENÜE postdoctoral project, FINZWIO, looks at the fine-scale distribution of micronekton and will help in our understanding of why sub-mesoscale structures are attractive sites for lower trophic level organisms and subsequently for higher trophic level predators which support local fisheries.

History of mental health within academia

Concerns about mental health within academia have been growing in recent years. A significant number of students and researchers meet the threshold for depression and are at a high risk of developing psychiatric disorders and suicidal thoughts than in other highly-educated groups (The Graduate Assembly, 2004). Transgender and/or genderquestioning people are also likely to experience anxiety and depression (Evans et al., 2018). Most students facing mental health issues struggle on their own without receiving appropriate care and treatment. Within five years, the higher education workforce in Australia, North America and the United Kingdom is predicted to be reduced by half or two-thirds due to retirement, burnout, or job dissatisfaction (Heffernan and Heffernan, 2018).

Importance of addressing mental health

Academics may experience feelings of frustration, anger, exhaustion, psychological and emotional withdrawal and suicidal ideation, leading to their early departure from academia and/or hospitalization and death. We need to pause and reflect on why many academics face mental health distress and develop concrete solutions and actions to help them. Society would feel the adverse effects if highly trained and talented individuals within academia continue to fall into depression or burnout.

Factors within academia that negatively impact mental health

Several academic career stages or experiences such as thesis defense, high competitiveness of research positions, repetitive job search after temporary contracts, applying for tenure-track positions and funding, and many more, can be extremely stressful and take a toll on a person. Students who experience financial hardships and food insecurity are also more likely to experience anxiety, sleep deprivation and depression. Increasingly, academics have reported that they have experienced a lack of kindness, understanding and compassion, even bullying, harassment and discrimination in academic settings (Loissel, 2020). University students from ethnic minorities have reported discriminatory encounters.

It is unusual for supervisors to have professional experience in managing trainees with mental health struggles. As a result, mental health struggles often stay unnoticed for an extended period of time, without getting appropriate peer support. In a highly competitive, and at times toxic, academic environment, early career researchers (ECRs) often feel that they are on a running track with peers to secure grants and/or tenure. As a result, some ECRs compromise their physical and mental well-being and work-life balance in favor of their career. Some feel trapped, unsupported, and replaceable in the current academic system.

Despite major progress in response to the gender balance requirement of EU funding schemes, many areas of research are still dominated by men, and there is significant imbalance in senior academic positions. The gender gap in academia grows progressively from the start of university years to the postdoctoral career stage and principal investigator positions. Working hours can be long and irregular. Without strong institutional support or supportive families, women may struggle to keep up with the increasingly important role of international mobility in scientific careers and, for those who want it, the opportunity and time to start their own families. One is expected to publish or perish and that leaves little room for a healthy work-life balance. Because postdocs often have to move for a new job, they can leave their emotional support behind, leaving their mental health increasingly vulnerable.

While many senior academic members have a stable job and financial security, even they struggle with the added responsibilities of departmental leadership, administrative work, mentoring, teaching, grant acquisitions as well as maintaining their own research agendas. With salary compression and reduced funding, many academics further feel overworked and under-compensated.

Potential solutions to improve mental health within academia

It is important to consider how scientists in different career stages can be supported from an institutional perspective. Those taking on new supervisory or teaching responsibilities should be given the opportunity and time to undergo training aimed at recognizing and supporting students and ECRs with mental health issues. During university orientation week, the range of mental health support available, from individual and group therapies, hotlines, telehealth, self-paced mobile and desktop applications and online resources, should be brought to the attention of students, and early career and senior university recruits. Formal or informal support groups (such as peer meetings, mental health ambassador programs and support networks; Loissel, 2019) and wellness programs such as mid-day yoga sessions, and other stress-reducing activities can be generalized across institutions. While some universities in the USA and in Europe have opened food pantries to support students facing food insecurity, this has not been generalized across all institutions. Increasing the pay scale in accordance with the rising cost of living would alleviate some of the mental health burden on academics. Greater diversification within mental healthcare provision could ease the feelings of ethnic minorities students of being marginalized and misunderstood by healthcare professionals within universities. Often, abusive behavior by academic members is not condemned by academic institutions, thus favoring a culture of inappropriate behavior within the system. Faculty and administrators must punish abuse, and set efficient and mindful work ethic and self-care standards (e.g., setting boundaries by allowing more work-free times) in order to move from toxic environments to a healthier work and education environment. Institutions and funding agencies such as COFUND programmes should prioritize the mental health of their recruits and allow telework for those who cannot relocate for personal reasons. This has the added advantage of opening the job application to a wider global cohort.

Conclusions

The current academic culture can instigate and exacerbate mental health struggles in students, ECRs and staff at varying career stages. While academia is attempting to shift from the mindset that mental struggles are an individual’s concern, much work remains to be done to understand the breadth of mental health issues and to develop concrete actions to create safe and healthy environments.

Pavanee Annasawmy
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Université de Bretagne-Occidentale
pannasawmy@yahoo.com
Twitter: @Angelee_Pavanee

References:

Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36, 282-284. https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089

The Graduate Assembly (2014). Graduate Student Happiness and Well-Being Report. University of California, Berkeley. http://ga.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Well-Being-Report-Deck.pdf

Heffernan, T. A., & Heffernan, A. (2019). The academic exodus: the role of institutional support in academics leaving universities and the academy. Professional Development in Education, 45 (1), 102-113. https://doi.org/10.1080/19415257.2018.1474491

Loissel, E. (2020). Shedding light on those who provide support. eLife, 9: e64739. https://doi.org/10.7554/elife.64739

Loissel, E. (2019). A question of support. ELife, 8: e52881. https://doi.org/10.7554/elife.52881

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