On October 10th, we celebrate World Mental Health Day. I would like to take this occasion to call your attention to what we can do as academics to promote and support awareness.
We know that academic jobs are demanding. The pressure to publish in high-impact journals and obtain prestigious research grants is combined with the high workload that comes from having to adjust our teaching to a new generation of learners, take on administrative tasks, and serve on various panels and committees. Therefore, we need to talk about our own mental health as well. Ultimately, we need to be looking out for the signs that our students and researchers may be struggling, and provide the support they need.
Promoting mental health awareness
What can we do as academics to promote mental health awareness? Here are my three top tips:
- Lead by example: If you want to promote mental health and a healthy work-life balance within your department, start with yourself. Be vulnerable and share your experiences and struggles with others, so that the taboo can be lifted in your environment. If you are leading a team of people, practice compassion: both self-compassion and compassion for those around you.
- Resist the culture of overwork: The nature of academic work is a contradiction in terms: on one hand, an academic job offers a lot of flexibility. The only thing we ever really “have” to do, is to show up to the few hours of lectures we have on our calendar. On the other hand, the demands on academics are very large. Excellence is expected, so that we never know when we have done “enough”. The result is that we will often strive to do more, publish more, and achieve more. To promote the protection of everyone’s mental health, we have to break the absurd cycle of always wanting to achieve more, and instead show what can be reasonable work requirements.
- Get training on mental health: A few summers ago, I had the opportunity to take a small specialisation course from the pedagogic institute of my university on mental health, and I became a mental health ally within my university. I received training on the various mental health challenges that are prevalent in our student body, and what it means to live with such a challenge. I then learned how these challenges influence learning, and what I can do to provide the right accommodations for students. Finally, I learned how to react in case of a crisis, and what the different supporting offices for students do, so that I now know better where to send students to get adequate help.
Nurturing our mental health
What can we as academics do to nurture our mental health? Below, I am sharing my top three tips – but I also realize mental health struggles are not something that can be easily packaged into a list of bullet points. See these ideas as suggestions, and get guidance from a professional on what would be your path forward in nurturing your mental health.
- Use university resources: Your university may have a variety of resources at your disposal: therapy, coaching, and dedicated support groups. Sometimes, getting counselling through a university centre may not feel safe, as you would want to fully separate your therapy from your workplace. Many universities cover mental health services in their insurance package, so you can access university resources on neutral grounds.
- Discuss workload: Protecting our mental health in academia is closely related to resisting the culture of overwork. From that point of view, it is important to have honest discussions about workload with our team members as well as with our supervisors.
- Set boundaries: Along the same lines, setting boundaries in academia is important. If applicable to you, you can work on this topic with a coach or therapist. In academia, there are various fronts on which we need to learn how to set boundaries: in terms of expectations, workload, emotional labour with students, working hours, travel commitments, and more.
Supporting our students
Finally, we need to look at some common mental health challenges that our students, PhD researchers or post-doctoral candidates may be struggling with. The most common struggles in students are anxiety, depression, and burnout. These conditions can be linked to or aggravated by struggles with feeling like an imposter in academia or perfection. What can we do when we notice our students are struggling? Here are three things to consider:
- Create a safe environment: If you notice that a student is struggling, you will want to work on creating a safe environment in which the student can come forward and tell you about their difficulties. It is important here to note that you are not your student’s therapist. They may want to share with you the full situation, or only some details – all you need to know is that they are struggling so that you can create accommodations for learning or working under the conditions they are facing.
- Facilitate resources: Redirect your student to the available services and offices of your university. If a longer leave of absence will be necessary, direct them to HR and the labour union so that they can know their rights. If you are not clear about the services your university offers, ask and read up about the topic.
- Offer flexibility: Create accommodations for students who are going through a difficult time by offering flexibility with deadlines and/or providing additional accommodations during exams. For PhD candidates and post-docs, see which deliverables of their projects can be temporarily postponed, or how you can redistribute the work within your research group.
In conclusion, we can say that mental health is a topic of increasing importance in academia, and it is important for us as academics to promote awareness around the mental health of faculty and students, to nurture and protect our own mental health, and to support students when they face mental health challenges.