2015-16 in review, pt 1: on mental wellness

It’s mid-April, and that means I’m a week and a handful out of the classroom. I’m feeling ok, but not exactly great (let alone euphoric): it’s been one hell of a year. And though prep and term marking are now over, dealing with struggling students and coping with them writing their finals is not.

Also not over: the edited collection of essays I’m due to deliver in 15 days; the conference I’m co-chairing that takes place end of May; and the admin related to the degree program I help to run, which is ramping up again in time for student course selection in June.

In other words: I’m still pretty unbearably busy.

And I’m emotionally as drained as can be.

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That’s why this year’s reflections on the year just past – for last year’s reflections, start here – need to begin with a post on mind-body wellness. Quite apart from the fact that I have honestly had a year from hell, and thus all reflection on it is coloured by struggle, this is also the time of year when many of us both rejoice in the end of classes and face one of the toughest mental tests of the term: the exam period.

During the exam period students come face to face with what they have, and have not, done to accomplish their goals during the academic year. They freak out; they stay up all night studying (or not); they beg for mercy in emails and in office hours. Simultaneously, faculty members struggle to cope with the onslaught of marking and end-of-year admin (aka meetings galore), as well as the sinking feeling that our lives are no longer structured by (and our lack of research output no longer excused by!) the courses that we teach, which by default shape our working lives from September through March. Plus, of course, students’ stress leaks out all over us, as we do our best to support them through their end-of-year challenges both administrative and emotional.

Put it all together, and you have a crucible of volatile emotions flying across campus – and a hell of a lot of work to do just managing them.

This exam period was preceded, for me, by a flurry of interest in the matter of mental health on campus. This may have been a coincidence, but somehow I doubt it. First, I received a number of emails from University Affairs, a Canadian academic-industry magazine, showcasing a mix of articles on the topic (and including compelling pieces from students on how teachers can help, here; and from the perspective of graduate students, from the always-perceptive Melonie Fullick here). Then, one of my students organised a long table, as part of her final project for my performance studies class, focused on student mental health and what our university can do better to support struggling students. Finally, one of my colleagues circulated information about a terrific new book on wellness for university faculty, The Slow Professor (which I immediately ordered up from the publisher. For your own copy, click here).

We’re getting worked up these days about mental health on campus for good reason: it’s a challenge that has been building since we began to conceive of universities as job-training and job-creation hubs, rather than as the sites of scattered, accidental, incredible intellectual imagination and discovery that they have long, long been. This isn’t the place to rehearse the false consciousness that tries to claim for universities the role of job-prep robot; instead, I want to point specifically to the kinds of emotional breakdown that often follow from this flawed logic – for students, but also for profs and support staff.

Our students feel, increasingly, as though their educations are meant to land them not just jobs but careers. And many of them are only 18, 19 years old! The pressure this need generates for the young people in our charge is overwhelming, and all the while many of them lack the skill sets to cope with it. The result of this pressure, plus this lack, can often be collapse of a significant magnitude: as I learned from some of the students who attended the long table organised by my student Rebecca King, plenty of them are using alcohol as a coping mechanism more than they should do, and plenty are (of course) using a mix of other drugs to numb the anxiety and fear of failure. All of them know someone struggling with mental health issues, and many of them struggle themselves.

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Sitting at the long table Rebecca organised, this information resonated with me, but not just because I care about my students and how they are faring. It resonated in large part because I saw myself in the conversation, too: as a front-line student support worker (all teachers are!), the emotional labour of supporting increasingly anxious, depressed, self- or doctor-medicated students has become one of the hardest, and most constant, parts of my job. This is anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but it seems to me the numbers of these students moving through my office is increasing every year (certainly I have statistical evidence from my own classes that more and more students are not handing work in at all). And as the emotion-management part of my job increases, my own emotional wellbeing becomes increasingly fragile.

We make a lot of noise now, for very good reason, about student mental wellness at university, but we still do not talk nearly enough about faculty and staff mental health. Profs are the authority figures and the power-brokers on campus, and so our struggles to cope with anxiety, depression, and related issues can often go unseen. But many of us are medicated, and many of us are struggling every bit as much as our students. I know very few colleagues not taking prescription drugs just to cope. And I don’t believe that’s because high-functioning troubled folks self-select into the academy; I believe the academy does to us as good as we can get, and then some.

Student mental health is rightly near the top of our radar; after all, the young people we teach don’t have the same experience managing complicated working lives as we do, and for many the culture shock of entering the university system, with its neoliberal focus on individual responsibility and bootstrap-pulling, can be overwhelming after a childhood of helicopter parenting. But truth be told, the unwatched movie of campus life is the one that reveals the number of faculty drinking too much wine each night, needing Ativan or Zopiclone just to sleep, and crying in their offices before and after class – trying their hardest, of course, to show none of this to their students.

Universities across Canada (and far beyond) have long since taken steps to support both students and faculty (as well as non-academic staff) who struggle with mental health issues; if Rebecca’s long table provides any evidence, however, those steps are often (perceived as) inadequate. Students are promised support, but the wait for genuine counselling is long. Students need accommodation for mental health issues, but doctors’ notes are expensive, and can be harder to acquire for problems without physical symptoms. Meanwhile, faculty (like many students) often suffer in silence, whispering quietly to one another what they take, or how much they drink, or both. It’s all shameful, until we share the story, and realise we’re not alone.

Sure there are supports on campus for faculty too, and I know from personal experience who in my department I can go to if things get really bad for me. I’m fortunate to have a chair with tonnes of sympathetic HR experience who knows how to advocate for staff, and I have a handful of colleagues I count as family who are there for me. But I also know that sharing mental health issues openly, especially for women faculty who still battle gendered perceptions about being “too emotional”, can be incredibly difficult, and even genuinely risky. A lot is at stake in opening up.

By strange and perfect coincidence (OK, once again, prob not actually a coincidence), the day after I wrote this post I had dinner with close friends who work at nearby universities, and we spent a large part of our shared meal talking about our shared struggle with labour overload, work boundaries, and the mental health fallout from it all. We were brutally honest together because we could be – but we also reminded one another that such honesty can’t always obtain at work. Because even though we’ve become better and better at talking with and to students about their challenges, and increasingly students are accommodated for their mental health problems (as it should be), it’s still pretty rare for faculty to share their issues and experiences with one another, or with those (chairs and deans) who can – and should – support and accommodate us.

I have, for a while now, made a point of sharing with my students my own struggles with mental wellness: my mom’s dementia, as well as the fact that I take doctor-prescribed meds in order to remain functional. And I encourage students to visit me in office hours if they have anything related to mental wellness they want to talk about. But that, I know, is a privilege: I’m still high functioning and productive, my students respect me, and my boss both supports me and knows he can rely on me. So my risk, in talking mental health matters, is minimal. In fact, the people I’d really like to hear from, and share health and wellness stories with, are my colleagues. That conversation feels urgent, yet also unlikely.

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I’m thinking of taking a page out of Rebecca’s book and organising a faculty mental health long table in September on my campus. And I’m going to create another post about women’s particular struggles with this stuff, because my chat with my friends reminded me how much more there is to say on that score.

Meanwhile, though, I would love to hear others’ experiences and perspectives on this one: what supports on your campus exist to help faculty struggling with emotion management and mental health and wellness? Do you feel you can share your stories openly? Where and with whom?

Sending good vibes out to y’all,

Kim

 

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