Reading list: Mental Health in Academia

As you might have noticed, we’re at the end of Mental Health Awareness Week. Talking to friends and colleagues, I’ve come to the conclusion that most academics either have experienced some mental health issues, or at least know someone who does. The more I dig into it, the more complex and sensitive the problem seems to me. I’d be an idiot if I tried to pass any judgements, but one thing I know is – we can no longer keep silent. The multitude of accounts of academics crumbling under unhealthy pressure speaks for itself. So, instead of stating the obvious about how stressful PhD is, I will give voice to others, who have already articularted it brilliantly.

This is by no means a complete reading list about mental health, more a selection based on what I recently found. Feel free to adapt it and pass it around, if you know someone with similar experiences.

1. Hard proof of the problem – numbers

A summary of these papers with some additional comments from the authors can also be found in this article from Times Higher Education.

2. Some aspects of academic life that make it especially tough

Know your rights. Know what you are owed. I say this because you are powerful: you are the future of academia, and much like the millennials inheriting the mess of our parent’s generation, you are inheriting a mess.

PhDs are manufactured; they drop off the end of a conveyer belt, but no one cares what happens to graduates after that.

A particularly horrifying excerpt:

our university actually sent out a letter saying graduate students shouldn’t start families and should have meatless spaghetti sauce because these are luxuries we shouldn’t expect as graduate students!!!

The author claims that more financial and psychological help should be provided to make the whole experience less of an emotional rollercoaster.

The Vitae report “What do Research Staff Do Next?” shows that postdocs who leave academic careers for other sectors or non-research careers within Higher Education are highly satisfied. While 78% aspired to academic careers while they were postdocs, only 11% would now go back; that statistic alone is incredibly telling.

3. Advice on how to take care of yourself

If you are looking for more tricks that will help you through the difficult periods of your academic career, have a look at PhD self-care tips by Lisa Jones @ In the Science Worldmore advice from Lydia Chantler-Hicks @ FindAMasters.com and this article about common symptoms of chronic stress and how to tackle them by Lucie Bland.

4. Personal stories of academics with experiencing mental disorders

I have come across plenty of amazing, heart-breaking and motivational stories, this is just a fraction of them.

  • My experience with depression in academia. Rachel Strohm @ RachelStrohm.com
    I really appreciate it that this post describes how easy it is to ignore warning signs and write them off as laziness or lack of motivation, and blaming yourself only increases the pressure.  The author gives examples of the steps she took to get better, some really simple that you could start right away (journalling is one of them, highly recommended!).
  • Recovering from Graduate School: Rewriting the Trauma Narrative. Eric Anthony Grollman @ Write Where It Hurts
    Although trauma is a strong word, the author explain why it is entirely justified to describe some PhD stories. On the other hand, they mention all the activities that decided to maintain even though they were not valued by their institution, but helped them develop personally. More on about their PhD experience can be read here.
  • Thesis Hatement. Rebecca Schuman @ Slate
    This is a rather blunt explanation why doing a PhD might not make sense at all. Probably applies more to humanities than STEM, but everyone needs to realize that being a Doctor won’t magically increase your employability.
  • High-Functioning Depression and Anxiety and The PhD. Catherine Oakley @ Mind Your Head
    This is an account of someone whose struggles with depression and anxiety started before PhD. However, as this story shows, pressures associated with grad school very often make the preexisting conditions much worse. She also highlights how difficult it is to seek support for fear of being perceived as weak or sorry for yourself.
  • PhD life and depression. Heidi R. Gardner @ heidirgardner.wordpress.com
    Here is another story of a person whose depression was not a direct consequence of doing a PhD, but something that happened at the same time. She makes excellent points about opening up and not delaying looking for help until the last possible moment.
  • Crabs and Cautious Optimism. Danni Glover @ danniglover.com
    An important message here – yes, PhD is tough, but telling the newcomers that it’s going to break them is not doing anybody any service.
  • Addressing my mental health issues saved my scientific career. Christa Trexler @ SisterSTEM
    Recognizing that something is wrong, seeking help and if needed – being medicated is something which will save your PhD, but more importantly – you.

5. More links

The list above is by no means exhaustive. If you feel like reading more, Nature has recently published a number of stories on the topics I covered:

There are also many twitter/tumblr groups that you can join if you’re looking for information and support, for instance Ph_D_epression (twitter) and Mental Health in Academia (tumblr).

PS. Kudos for the staff of London’s Oval station for supporting Mental Health Awareness Week as well!

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