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Mental Health Problems in Academic Staff and What Can Universities Do About It

I’ve already talked about a mental health crisis in academia in my previous Mental Health Issues Are Part of a PhD’s Job Description post. That article focused on issues concerning PhD students specifically.

In this post, firstly, I’d like to focus on evidence of mental health problems in academic staff in general, not just in PhD students. Secondly, I want to give a summary of possible action steps for universities to improve the current situation regarding mental illness.

Rise of Mental Illness in Academic Staff

More and more publications are realising that there is a rise of mental illness in academic staff in general.

The Guardian talks about a steady increase in academics that consider their jobs stressful.

In a 2014 survey of work-related stress in higher education in the UK, more than half of academics (53%) indicated that their general level of stress was high or very high.

From the survey itself:

The proportion of respondents from HE [Higher Education] who agreed or strongly agreed that they find their job stressful has increased from 72% in the 2012 survey to 79% in 2014.

The same survey reveals that working hours have also increased in the two years since a previous survey was conducted.

Specifically, 41% of staff employed on a full-time contract said they generally work over 50 hours a week, in contrast to 34% in 2012. 15% of staff reported working over 60 hours per week, in contrast to 10% in 2012.

Dr Alan Swann of Imperial College London, chair of the higher education occupational physicians committee, casts blame to “demands for increased product and productivity” for the rising mental health issues we observe in academics.

He adds: “They all have to produce results – you are only as good as your research rating or as good as your ability to bring in funding for research.”

This is also known as the publish or perish mantra.

Lastly, Dr Swann says that academics are “having difficulty switching off and feeling guilty if they’re not working seven days a week.”

Do you start seeing the pattern?

This feeling of guilt is something I’ve experienced myself and have seen many other PhDs experience it too.

New Scientist also highlights how academia is starting to acknowledge the depression and anxiety that some academic staff experiences.

They point to a 2003 Australian study that reported that the rate of mental illness in academic staff was three to four times higher than in the general population.

Furthermore, the same article cites a study from the journal Educational Psychology where it was found that the percentage of academics with mental illness in the UK has been estimated to be at 53%.

What Can Universities Do to Tackle Mental Health Issues?

In this section, I want to summarise the recommendations given to universities to tackle mental health illness.

The authors of the 2018 Nature Biotechnology paper advise universities to increase awareness of mental health issues among students, train supervisors to detect concerned students and direct them to qualified resources, and encourage supervisors to promote a work-life balance by leading by example.

In The Guardian, Edward Pinkney, a mental health consultant working in education says:

Institutions have a broader civic duty to educate potential academics about the university environment, so that prospective academics can make a more informed decision about whether or not to proceed.

As universities become increasingly businesslike, there’s a growing need for them to be independently monitored to ensure that they are not just meeting basic standards of support for their members, but also that they are providing an accurate representation of academic life and not misselling it.

A 2016 report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) argues that UK universities need to triple how much they spend on support to improve students’ mental health.

The same author of the 2016 HEPI report talks in a separate article about a study conducted by Student Minds, a UK charity focusing on student mental health.

The study reveals that UK academics struggle to support students with mental health problems.

The author stresses that individuals are easily influenced when in a vulnerable state and that UK academics don’t have the necessary training in advising students with mental health problems. She says that better student support services are needed.

Lastly, Jennifer Walker recommends in her Quartz article that universities “need to create a culture of openness that not only removes the stigma associated with mental-health problems but encourages students to ask for help”.

In conclusion, I think it’s clear that there are some serious mental health problems in academic staff that need urgent attention. If you’re a PhD student with the goal of becoming an academic, consider and reconsider your goal. It might not be worth the price of your sanity.

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