Mental Health and Academia: What Can Departments and Individuals Do?


There appears to be a mental health crisis in academia, especially among graduate students. Some of its contributing factors are discussed in what follows, with the hope of soliciting suggestions for steps departments or individuals can take to help.

From one recent metastudy:

The high levels of stress inherent in the academic researcher population has been shown to increase their risk of experiencing burnout and depression. Early career researchers, a term often used to describe doctoral researchers and post-doctoral researchers, are thought to be particularly at risk of experiencing common mental health difficulties due to the job precarity that characterizes this career stage, and the prevalence of top-down power dynamics which can prevent the disclosure of bullying, harassment, and exploitation.

A small, yet growing number of quantitative studies utilizing author-created questionnaires and validated mental health measures have given an indication as to the prevalence and severity of mental-ill health amongst postgraduate researchers in particular. Evans et al., utilised the Generalised Anxiety Disorder questionnaire (GAD-7) and the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) to show that postgraduate researchers (comprising both MSc students and doctoral researchers) were six times more likely to report experiencing anxiety and depression compared to those in the general population, with poor work life balance and poor mentor relationships being cited as correlating with worse mental health outcomes. Similarly, a recent systematic review and meta-analysis found that 24% of doctoral researchers displayed clinically significant symptoms of depression and 17% displayed clinically significant symptoms of anxiety, rates which were identified to be similar to estimated prevalence rates in other high stress populations including medical students and resident physicians.

Estimates of the prevalence and severity of specific mental health difficulties amongst post-doctoral researchers and more senior researchers are scarce, however, a recently released report by Education Support found that out of 2,046 academic (85.9%) and academic-related staff (14.1%) in the UK, 53.2% showed probable signs of depression. 

Factors that seem to be contributing to problems with mental well-being, according to the metastudy, include:

  • Insecurity and career prospects
    • financial insecurity: scarcity of funding, small stipends
    • job insecurity: precarious short-term work contracts, grant-dependent positions, lack of voice owed to precarity
    • career prospects and aspirations: lack of permanent positions, limited preparation for non-academic career paths
  • The demandingness of the job
    • high expectations and overworking
    • aggressively competitive workplace
    • reluctance to disclose mental health issues for fear of jeopardizing one’s reputation for being able to meet high standards
    • lack of clarity regarding the nature of supervisory relationships (pastoral? confidential?)
    • strong personal identification with success as academic
  • Work-life balance
    • importance of being able to relocate
    • feeling unable to take breaks
    • feel forced to choose between having children and making progress in one’s career
    • the “blessing and curse” nature of work flexibility
  • Relationships and role models
    • social relationships threatened by the time demands of academic work
    • unhelpful and ineffective mentoring
    • lack of diversity at senior levels of the academy
    • feelings of isolation
  • Impact of working in academia on health
    • normalization of chronic stress
    • lack of open discourse about mental health
  • Coping and support
    • lack of support by organizations (“a disconnect between the high expectations set by the higher education system, and the time, resources, and encouragement given to researchers in order to reach these expectations”)
    • lack of effectiveness of student services in handling problems specific to doctoral researchers
    • untutored individual coping strategies
    • unequal access to resources, support, and opportunities

What factors tend to contribute positively to mental well-being? Here are some possibilities gleaned from the study:

  • Membership in active peer and social networks
  • Fostering an environment where open discourse around mental health and well-being at work can occur without fear of repercussions
  • Making sure academics are aware of the institutional support available to them for mental health
  • University investment in mentoring and supervisory relationships with appropriate training for supervisors, clarification of the supervisory role, and ensuring a good fit between doctoral researcher and supervisor
  • Updating of institutional policies regarding support, leave, diversity

One thing that comes through in reading about this is the importance of community—of there being a work environment in which academics feel welcome, and having a sense that your peers, colleagues, and teachers care about you. It would be useful to hear ideas for how academic departments can develop or strengthen the sense of community and support they provide.

More generally, I would be grateful for suggestions about steps individuals and departments can (or do) take to help foster mental well-being in academia.

 

guest
22 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jeff
1 month ago

This is such an important conversation. I want to add two things I hope are helpful.

  1. We need better counseling for career changers. Part of the mental health burden on graduate students is that they realize the work isn’t for them, but have invested so much (emotionally, socially, economically) that they feel they must just power through. This is not conducive to well-being or mental health.
  2. I mentor new faculty, and they struggle to offer the mental health supports that they would’ve wanted when they were students. I think we need better mentoring and advising for this important transition. The new faculty I work with developed strategies that worked for them in their role as a student. These strategies aren’t the same that will work in their role as new faculty members. Unless they build these strategies, then we won’t make meaningful progress on the mental health crisis.

Report

Alex
1 month ago

To my mind, the main source of stress is the huge investment one makes in doing grad-level research/training for entering a field with few jobs, and few stable jobs. That’s the crux of it. If so, the biggest difference that could be made to this is to broaden the nature of the training a PhD offers so that the PhD isn’t just straightforwardly useful for the academic job market. It should be clearly useful for acquiring skills that can be used outside of academia. So clear that those doing the PhD can see that this is obviously true. Then PhD students would know that there’s value in what they’re doing even if they never enter academia. Their identity needn’t be so closely tied to that and therefore so threatened by not going on into academia. They’d know they’re not suffering a huge opportunity cost if they don’t go into academia.Report

Jackie
1 month ago

“Making sure academics are aware of the institutional support available to them for mental health”

What support is there for faculty with psychological health difficulties at most universities? I had nothing but my health insurance to turn to. No support at all. My chair basically told me to get meds, suck it up, and continue doing my job. I had to personally ask colleagues if they could fill in for me as needed.Report

Twitterer
1 month ago

Did you happen to see Alexandra’s (Toronto) Twitter thread yesterday?

https://twitter.com/alexxguss/status/1582067200617512960?s=20&t=tCCglupdfo6tqC-Gtl3RwAReport

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Twitterer
1 month ago

Where does she get the idea that being social and collaborative is not being successful in the field? (I’ll grant that being passionate about teaching is not.)Report

Michaela
Michaela
Reply to  Twitterer
1 month ago

In my department the most successful grad students are those who do both significant service and who are passionate, careful, thoughtful teachers. I’m not down with this idea that “success” is about research and ego only. As a grad student at a “top” department I might have gotten that message. But success isn’t the same thing as fame (which might be about research greatness in philosophy) and surely one way to be successful is to be a teacher whose classes undergrads remember 15 years later. That’s the kind of teacher many of our grad students are, and those are the ones with the easiest time getting jobs. I am not sure, but I think most of the grad students in my department wouldn’t think that this description applies to our department, which does not at all discourage friendly collaborative work and which prizes good teaching. We also have (comparatively) good placement. So In short, it’s not like this everywhere and if you work hard at getting a more teaching-focused job it’s not like this at all, as far as I can tell—and success at your job will involve the very things that are listed as not valued by the profession. I think sometimes when people keep saying things like this, even when objecting to them, it’s a way of reinforcing that “this is just the way it is”. But it’s really not even at all accurate when it comes to either competition for, or what is valued by, many many kinds of jobs and many people within the philosophy community. This sounds like an argument for attending lower ranked grad programs with good placement into teaching schools to me. (By the way, I don’t disagree that there is a crisis here either way, I just wouldn’t describe the contours of it this way from where I teach.)Report

Shelley Tremain
1 month ago

For readers/listeners of this post who are interested in the issues that the post raises, I recommend the following Dialogues on Disability interviews:

Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Abigail Gosselin – BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Emily Heydon – BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain With Isaac (YunQi) Jiang – BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Alex Bryant – BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Laura Cupples – BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Paul Lodge – BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

(99+) Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Brian Montgomery (posted at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY) | Shelley L Tremain – Academia.edu

(99+) Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Jake Jackson (posted at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY) | Shelley L Tremain – Academia.edu

(99+) Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Audrey Yap (posted at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY) | Shelley L Tremain – Academia.edu

(99+) Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Jesse Prinz (posted at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY) | Shelley L Tremain and Jesse Prinz – Academia.edu

In addition, I encourage you to attend the upcoming Philosophy, Disability and Social Change 3 Conference (Dec. 6-9) whose program includes several relevant presentations. The (final) program for this online conference, which is co-organized by me and Jonathan Wolff, is here: Preliminary Program for Philosophy, Disability, and Social Change 3 (#PhiDisSocCh3), Zoom/Online, Dec. 6-9, 2022 – BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

Registration for the conference will open very soon. Please check BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY for updates in this regard.Report

Marcus Arvan
1 month ago

It has been a while since I was in graduate school, but one pattern that I saw over and over again (and succumbed to myself) was this: struggling grad students isolating themselves out of shame–withdrawing from their department, avoiding their advisor/dissertation supervisor, etc.

I did this for almost 2 full years in grad school. After suffering some academic setbacks (including but not limited to profound difficulty developing a viable dissertation topic, some revise-and-resubmits that turned into brutal rejections, etc.), I felt completely lost. I started avoiding departmental functions, interactions with other grad students, faculty, etc.

This is, I think, an entirely natural defense mechanism–and I know that my case was far from unique. I’ve known more than a few grad students who did more or less the same thing, not only in philosophy but in other disciplines too. It can be hard to face others, let alone seek people out and be happy and congenial around them, when you feel like a failure and that everyone around you ‘who matters’ (your fellow grad students, grad faculty, etc.) probably thinks so too.

The problem then is this: when you are increasingly (self-)isolated, feeling like you are failing, like you have no job prospects (with some real justification), and like you have no other options (because your grad studies did not prepare you for non-academic jobs)–all the while racking up debt (if only because you can only afford to pay your credit card minimums)–well *of course* you’re going to feel hopeless, depressed, anxious, etc.

I remember very, very well what this felt like. I can only describe it as (1) the most hopeless period of my entire life, and (2) learned helpessness: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness. And the problem is that grad school (particularly in philosophy) seems systematically conducive to it. How can one *not* feel hopeless (and depressed and anxious) in these kinds of situations, ones that many grad students predictably (and perennially) face?

I share this story not merely because it happened to me and a number of other grad students that I knew, but because it seems to me something that–to extent that it still occurs (and I suspect that it does)–graduate departments very much can and should take steps to prevent and address compassionately when it does happen.

If a student appears to be struggling and has withdrawn from departmental life, don’t just let it go on for months or years on end, don’t just “write the student off”, and don’t confront it by judging that the student can’t make it, pushing them out of the program, or suggesting to them “maybe they’re not cut out for philosophy/academia.”

These all things that I have either experienced first-hand or seen other grad students face–and in my experience they only make things worse. Imagine that you already felt like a total failure, that you had wasted 6-8 years of your life with no career prospects…and someone–particularly a faculty member–just said to you, “You know, maybe you’re just not cut out for this.” If there’s anyway to further destroy an already-hopeless person’s psyche, that’ll surely do the trick. You may be well-meaning (you may really think they don’t belong in academia), but seriously, that’s not what someone in that position needs (and, as an addendum, I would add: I’ve seen more than a few grad students who “nobody thought belonged” end up going on to have fine careers after struggling in grad school, everyone’s expectations notwithstanding).

Instead of making students feel worse or pushing them out (hardly or softly), departments should take proactive steps to prevent struggling students from isolating themselves to begin with, and when it does happen, to reach out to students who are struggling and isolating with kindness, compassion and support. Show some faith in them (they got into your program for a reason), and try to help them through–either through the program or into a good non-academic career (without judgment).

In my case, I think I only survived graduate school “in one piece”, as it were, because after a few years of falling down a deep hole, some people in my program actually did some of these things for me. I will forever be grateful to them, and all grad students should have that kind of support. It really can make all the difference, as it were.

FwiwReport

Pranay
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
1 month ago

Late to this by the standards of internet time, but just wanted to concur. In my experience, this is an enormous problem. And the “solution” is also bang-on.

Justin, please delete this bit if inappropriate: I offer facilitated support groups for early-career academics (details here: https://darshana.love/for-universities/). If someone reading this thinks they might benefit from something like that, please get in touch.Report

Tomas Albergo
1 month ago

How about more TT jobs and better pay and benefits for graduate students?Report

Patrick S. O'Donnell
1 month ago

I would argue, in agreement with those of more authority and expertise in this domain than yours truly, that there is a mental health crisis in this country generally, and especially among young people. Thus it should come as no surprise that (i) there “appears to be a mental health crisis in academia,” and (ii) “especially among graduate students.” Indeed, it is perhaps best to first look at the big picture in this regard by way of accounting for and explaining the particulars of what is happening in various sectors, classes, and groups in this society. I spoke to this subject at the beginning of the month by way of commenting on a recent piece in the LA Times noting survey results that found “young adults in California experience alarming rates of anxiety and depression” (such surveys are not impeccably accurate of course, so the proverbial grain of salt if not the usual ceteris paribus conditions apply). Should anyone be interested in this big picture, my specific comments, and some relevant literature on the subject, please see: https://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2022/10/the-myth-of-normal-or-the-pathology-of-normalcy.html
 Report

Patrick S. O'Donnell
1 month ago

I have a list (books and articles)—Capitalist and Other Distortions of Democratic Education—with more than a few titles that directly or indirectly speak to the motley structural, institutional, and social factors relevant to addressing questions of mental health and well-being in the academic world: https://www.academia.edu/7170503/Capitalist_and_Other_Distortions_of_Democratic_Education_a_reading_guide
 
For provocative and suggestive (and occasionally ‘utopian’) ways to address or transcend the many problems affecting the academic world, especially in the US and UK, this compilation contains works that one might consider possible and desirable alternatives to the status quo: https://www.academia.edu/43654918/Progressive_Philosophy_of_Education_and_Pedagogical_Practices_libert%C3%A9_egalit%C3%A9_fraternit%C3%A9_in_light_of_participatory_and_deliberative_democracy
 Report

RecentGrad
1 month ago

Some proposals:

  • Don’t hire people who clearly do not care about teaching and supervising. No matter how stellar their CVs look, or how much prestige they can bring your institution.
  • Join and encourage students’ attempts to unionize. Join them on the picket lines when they go on strike. Work-to-rule at those times.
  • Don’t admit more graduate students than you can reasonable expect to place. This means cut the grad student body by about half. This will lead to less cheap labour, so you’ll have to do more of the work you don’t like to do. So it goes.

Most graduate student stress is brought about by financial precarity, often presented as the feeling that any minor mistake they make might jeopardize their future. So the best way to support graduate students is to be willing to compromise some of your financial comfort for theirs.Report

AnxietyRidden
Reply to  RecentGrad
27 days ago

Your last point is huge. Speaking as a first-generation student from a dirt-poor family, I felt this acutely in grad school, to the point that I occasionally had trouble working at all because the fear of making a mistake, being forced out, and returning to a life with extremely limited prospects was overwhelming and damn near debilitating — actually, it just was debilitating at times. There’s no way to do good philosophy with that kind of pressure bearing down on one.Report

defender
1 month ago

A recommendation for faculty, from a graduate student:
If you do reading groups / parties / work-in-progress workshops etc. that are not open to everyone in your department, then try to make and stick to an admission criterion that everyone can understand (e.g. only people who are advanced to candidacy / who I am the supervisor for / who I am in their committee).
In the two departments I’ve been at, I have seen faculty do such events by-invitation-only and saw some students being turned around because “I don’t think you are at that level/prepared yet”, “I made this with those folks in mind and I don’t think you would fit”, etc. While not ill-intended, the psychological impact of those exclusions on students is severe. Not only do they feel excluded, they feel classified by the prof and fellow students as uncapable, and are left without a clear goal of they should do to be reconsidered. Better let the student in and figure out by themselves if they want to continue or not, than to convey the student your impression of them is such that you would rather not even try to conduct the event with them in.Report

Struggling Grad
1 month ago

Departments can do a better job of advocating for their students by becoming more aware of their school’s resources. Most often grad students are not included in the mailing lists/listservs and rely heavily on their department for navigating through university systems. Schools are aware that there is a crisis and are putting resources out there for students but their main concern is undergrads (I will not go on that rant here) and likewise rely on departments to guide their graduate students. The resources are for STUDENTS and grad students count. The information exchange is severely lacking.

This is just one move every department should be making – it means supporting all your students.Report

Will
1 month ago

When I was struggling—three years into a PhD program—my advisor suggested that I “get some meds” since “the problem is clearly me.”

hey, faculty, the problem is you

hey, grads, you don’t have to live like thatReport

Last edited 1 month ago by Will
Pranay
1 month ago

There are a couple more things I want to say, so I’ll do them in a separate comment.

First @Justin – I completely agree about the community bit. And @everyone – I’m curious. If people are still following this thread, could you chime in with things that your department does / you’ve heard departments of doing that help with building this community?

Second, and a bit in the reverse direction. Hard things are hard. Academic life, especially as an early-career academic, is nasty, brutish, and short. Anxiety, stress, sadness, fear, burnout … these are all actually very reasonable reactions to the situation of many early-career academics.

What I want to say with that is that while mindfulness is helpful, it’s also helpful to recognise that the situation is sh** for many people and that it’s valid to find it hard to cope. It’s not mental illness, it’s a reasonable response to reality. I have found such recognition – both receiving and giving it – to be helpful.Report

AnxietyRidden
27 days ago

I hope it’s permissible to just barf some words into the void here. I have (and from adolescence through my adult life have always had) severe generalized anxiety. It became downright crippling for prolonged stretches of time during grad school, to such a degree that I effectively lost more than a year of time during which I had guaranteed funding on account of anxiety so bad that I was unable to focus at all on my research and only succeeded at performing the bare minimum teaching duties required to keep a teaching position (and, hence, my funding). Ironically, a major source of the anxiety was concern about running out of funding and needing, but not having, additional time to finish the dissertation. (This might be related to my background as a first-generation student from a poor family.)

Although things turned out OK, speaking frankly I strongly suspect that this put me at a severe disadvantage to many grad school peers. Many grad students struggle, and of course I don’t know the full extent of anyone’s struggles except those of the few friends I had who confided in me. But to my knowledge — which is incomplete, sure — I seem to have been the only one in my fairly tight-knit department who spent long stretches of time more or less unable seriously to engage in philosophy because I couldn’t stop the anxiety spirals, intrusive thoughts, and extreme self-doubt even with therapy, meditation, exercise, and medication.

Looking back on my time in grad school, I see that I would’ve in some ways been better off taking leave at a couple of points and saving up my guaranteed funding for when I was doing better. (I say this as though it was an option. In reality, I had no ability to take leave because I had no money besides the meager pay from teaching assistantships.) But in the moment, it’s impossible to make that kind of decision with a level head. And sometimes it isn’t even possible, as happened to me when a particularly bad anxiety spiral started in the middle of a semester, causing me to have panic attacks multiple times per week. One poorly timed anxiety spiral could easily eat up half a semester or more, and there was no solution for the problems this raised. Perhaps this suggests that I was simply too unwell (or nearly so) to do philosophy when I did and that it is a miracle that I finished the dissertation after all. It’s unclear what anyone could have done differently, or what policies could have been changed, to make things better for me. Certainly it wouldn’t be reasonable for me to have expected accommodations that would have severely increased the burden or workload of others.

I should end the aimless rambling, but I do wonder whether it really is that rare to feel that one has “wasted” or “lost” so much irreplaceable and valuable time to poor mental health. Surely it isn’t, but it is rare to come across anyone acknowledging this. Is there anyone out there like me? If so, how do you deal with feeling of regret (or even self-loathing)?Report

Pranay Sanklecha
Reply to  AnxietyRidden
27 days ago

I’m so sorry to hear all this. For what it’s worth, my heart reaches out to you across the ether.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 23. I think I might know the self-loathing of which you speak – I used to regularly lash out at myself for being lazy, for being back in the depressive state, for not being able to finish things, for pretty much everything.

I’ve sometimes felt that it’s unfair that I’ve been “given” this disease. Dunno if you’d call that regret, but there’s certainly anger, sometimes. And sometimes, which is even worse, resignation.

I’ve done a shitload of therapy, I’ve been very lucky with people around me, and I’ve begun to develop the ability to occasionally not lash out at myself and instead to admire myself – in those moods, I find it incredible that despite this handicap I did everything I did, that I stayed open to the world, that I am more or less a functioning, generally good person.

I don’t know your specific circumstances. But just from what you describe in this comment, I feel that admiration for you. For what you endured, and what you managed to do despite it.

And for the courage it surely took to post the comment you did.

Is it appropriate to send you love? It’s suitably philosophical and detached, I promise.

Take care of yourself,

PReport

AnxietyRidden
Reply to  Pranay Sanklecha
26 days ago

Thank you. I really do sincerely appreciate the kind words and solidarity. It’s tough to deal with, but it helps knowing that there are others with similar struggles. We aren’t alone and do have sympathetic others!Report

John
27 days ago

I’m going to offer a left-turn take: consider a less demanding job that is more demanded. I did. Here’s what I mean.

Many people today believe that they should have a career, and also that this career should be impressive. Often, this impressiveness is thought to come from the fact that someone built a career they are uniquely qualified for, that identifies them as special in some way, as having ‘gifts’ that others do not have (the ‘be a professor only if you cannot imagine being anything else’ bullshit is closely related to this…).

These expectations almost killed me; they also made me miserable and anxious, and I found myself disgusted by the bubble of busy-body over-achievement in academia (and elsewhere in professional society), as well as by the largely avoidable psychological crises endured by those working in a system that is stacked against them.

So I dropped my goal to get a permanent job in academia. Then I dropped my expectation to have a career that would impress others (so, no more talk about going to law school for well north of 100k; no more talk about applying to consultancies; no more talk about getting that fancy job in tech; no more dreams that I would be the one to ‘breakthrough’ on the alt-ac, and be interviewed by some alt-ac chronicler on Twitter).

Instead, I took a job that has no status, that requires only a grade 12 education, that does not make me much money (though enough). Undoubtedly, others look down on me when I’m working, and think to themselves that they are glad they are not me (just like I used to, and sometimes still catch my self doing, when looking at others working). Perhaps they think I am a deadbeat, or too dumb to do anything else. Sometimes I think these things about myself. So this isn’t a story of back-to-basics tranquility.

But my job is also unimpeachably useful to society; is absolutely necessary for a vast number of social goods; and it is in high demand, largely because most people think they are better than it. So I have no concerns about unemployment or precarity. And each day I come home knowing exactly what I did to make my contribution that day, and exactly why I was paid to do it.

My mental health has improved considerably. I also have less guilt, because I am no longer labouring under the secret illusion that I deserve something exceptional because I am exceptional.

Academia can colonize your soul. But it takes just as much resilience to walk away and get a job that pays you reliably precisely because the service you perform is absolutely essential to society, each and every day. And there is no shame, and much pride, in doing that very work and then coming home still feeling interest in and a desire to participate in your intellectual interests. It’s shown me that I was in academia because I liked philosophy, but that this is not enough to stay there.

Also, no more grading. Fuck that shit.Report