On academic work and mental health (for professors and students alike)

It’s May! Back in Canada, my colleagues are throwing off the shackles of two chilly winter terms, getting out the shorts and sandals, and finishing the year’s marking and meetings en route to four months of welcome research labour. Here in the UK it’s exam term; we’ve had a lovely Easter break over April, and now must complete our own marking, meeting, and finalizing before taking off for the summer. In short, we’ve hit a cherished time of year.

Normally this is when I start to breathe a bit more easily, feel a bit stronger and lighter; the weather lifts, the intensity of the work tapers off, and time can be made in the day for taking things slowly (…and going to the gym, or out for a ride on my beloved road bike*). And so I have. But this spring is also filled with challenges for me: my family is struggling through a time of illness, and soon I’ll be packing up a portion of my house and heading back to Canada. My husband, dog and I will be living a trans-Atlantic life for a while, and I’m fretful and anxious about the emotional challenges ahead.

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*Photo of me and bike, feeling not sad at all.

I’ve pretty much always been an anxious person, though – and my anxiety pushes beyond the bounds of normal levels. I’ve been treated for it, and for other mental health difficulties, for well over a decade; I owe a great deal of my current wellbeing to the work I have done since 2001 with my superb psychotherapist, Andrew, who is based in Toronto. I also take medication to help me cope with anxiety and its fallout (which manifests for me as a sometimes-debilitating hypochondria). My anxiety has at times made it difficult for me to work, and sometimes I need to make allowances because I’m just not feeling quite OK. I’m not very good at this part, but I’m getting better.

I’ve been prompted to share this personal information by a spate of recent chatter on the Guardian Higher Education network: a recent article and a recent blog post generated lots of commentary and spurred the Guardian to conduct a survey on academic labour and mental health. I took it, and I was surprised to find that much of the stress and anxiety I feel is not directly attributable to my job; I suspect this is partly because of the history of mental health difficulties I’ve had over the course of my lifetime. I often wonder if I didn’t seek out my career in university teaching and learning because of a perverse attachment to the stresses of being a student; knowing that anxiety is part of what drives me (as my mother once memorably said to me, about herself), I suspect I sought out the worries I knew, rather than opting for unfamiliar psychic burdens. Anyway, obviously my job is full of stresses, but I don’t consider that abnormal in any particular way. Which means two things, I think: first, that I’m pretty self-aware, and manage my anxieties fairly effectively (I’ve had lots of help and training, fortunately); and second – and this is the argument that the above-linked blog post very succinctly and helpfully makes about academics in general – that I’m perhaps too cavalier about the psycho-physical toll university life has on me, my students, and my colleagues. And that’s a serious problem.

Anecdotally, many of my fellow uni teachers report a sharp, recent increase in the number of students who come to us during office hours or advising meetings with serious mental health challenges. Just this past year I’ve encountered a student who was finding it hard to get out of bed in the morning, a student whose roommate was presenting with clinical OCD, a student from outside the UK struggling with loneliness and feelings of depression, a student diagnosed with a learning disability who was initially unable to cope with the diagnosis, and handfuls of other students not sure how to deal with what we might call the mundane stresses of academic life. I have no idea if this marks a true “increase” in student mental health problems in the UK or elsewhere – if anyone has statistics to hand on this, please post them in the comments section below – or if this is a matter of more students willing to report on their challenges to advisors; I do sense, though, that for the students who come to see me, speaking about these issues remains extremely taboo. It still takes a great deal of effort to work up the courage to knock on the door, or to email for an appointment. I’m open with students about my own mental health struggles, which may be one reason they feel they can take a chance and come talk to me, but that doesn’t make it any easier in the moment, for either of us.

Ever since I read the material on the Guardian network I’ve been thinking about how we can better support one another – colleagues and students – in maintaining our mental health and wellbeing, and I think this challenge applies equally to university and grammar school settings, although I fully admit to knowing nothing about mental health provisions for the latter in the UK or in North America today. (I remember having two psychological breaks as a student, one in year 4 and one in year 8, but I got almost no support from teachers and felt profoundly ashamed of myself as part of the experience. Then again, that was almost 30 years ago now; I hope and pray times have changed.) One thing we can, and should, do – as I’ve argued in this space a couple of times before, complete with holiday snaps! – is to remind students and peers alike that working all the time is not a good idea, will not make your output better, and will not contribute to a long and successful career; every body needs rest in order to assimilate learning, nourish itself, and grow. (I don’t care if you work in a lab, in a library, or in front of a computer most of the time – we are not ourselves machines.) But surely we can also do more.

One of the strengths of my current academic home in the Drama Department at Queen Mary University of London is the openness with which we talk about mental health issues; in fact, we maintain an academic focus on the links between performing arts and emotional wellbeing through the work of scholar/practitioners Caoimhe McAvinchey, Ali Campbell, Lois Weaver, and others, as well as through our affiliation with visual artist, performance maker, and lay medical expert Dr Bobby Baker. Next year, we’ll also be inaugurating a Master of Science pathway in Creative Arts and Mental Health, shared with QM’s Wolfson Institute for Preventive Medicine. We’re really good, in other words, at talking openly and without judgement about the kinds of wobblies that our society still, in 2014, rarely lets us admit to. Which makes us darn lucky, and sadly rare.

What have I learned from QM Drama’s focus on performance and wellbeing that might offer us a model for talking about and engaging with mental health challenges in our classrooms and staff rooms elsewhere? Here are three tips, off the top.

  • Talk about mental health and wellbeing in the classroom. More than once. And early on. Perhaps put something about it – and about the resources available to students – on the syllabus/module outline, along with some friendly, supportive language about how all of us need such help from time to time. Then make time to talk about it regularly; check in with students about how they are feeling throughout the term. As part of this process, take a risk and be honest with students: are you feeling a bit crap yourself? Why not share that information? Sure, of course, we need to retain some professional distance: a classroom is not group therapy, and many of us are not qualified psychologists. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot be honest, as human beings, about how things are going and how we’re feeling. In my experience, when students clock that their teachers are imperfect human beings too they feel instantly more at ease. They feel better.
  • Share coping strategies with students, both in the classroom and in office hours. I am very willing to tell my students that I struggle with clinical anxiety and that I take medication to help me manage that condition; I am also very willing to share my experiences of talk therapy with them. Some of you (and some of them), I know, will think this is over-sharing, but I consider it a normalizing gesture – making what might seem shameful sound actually pretty OK. I have these conditions but I’m doing fine and feeling well; you can also feel better and do well. There are a lot of services on a modern university campus designed to help students manage mental health problems, and of course it’s essential that we direct students in need to those services; sometimes, though, before sending a student away to be pathologized by a campus counselor, it can help for us to let that student know that we are all, in many ways, in this together.
  • Make some noise in your department, school or centre about mental health issues for students and staff. At QM Drama talking about mental and emotional wellness is part of what we do, both professionally and as colleagues and friends; I know full well that this is not the case in every department. (A dear friend and colleague in Canada once admitted to me that he takes medication for depression, and that by his estimate half of our department may have done; I had no idea, but when he said that to me, strict truth or not, a weight lifted.) Perhaps each department on every university campus should have a strategy – maybe ad hoc or informal, if not necessarily fixed on paper – for supporting its staff and students in times of emotional need. This strategy might be as simple as all staff being encouraged to talk about mental wellness issues whenever necessary, with students or peers; it might extend to encouragement to check in with students in the classroom, when teachers feel comfortable or able to do, so that such check-ins are considered normal and not strange for students going through the department’s courses. Or, maybe it’s as simple as fostering an atmosphere of openness and non-shamefulness in relation to mental health issues, so that everyone feels like, if they need to speak up for their own good, they can do that safely in the office or the photocopy room.

As I’ve been writing this post I’ve been wondering to myself if I’m stating the obvious; surely we all know by now that struggling with anxiety, depression, or even compulsive behaviours is not abnormal. But I have a feeling I’m not, and that we really don’t; stigmas remain, and they are tenacious. Big Pharma and its many colourful pills may be ubiquitous, but the rise of medicating mental difficulty has not necessarily opened our eyes, hearts, ears or mouths to the complex and debilitating realities of coping with it. Surely one of our jobs, as teachers and teaching colleagues, is to break such remaining barriers down – or at least to make life and work more manageable for those trapped behind them.

Be well,

Kim

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