is mental illness on the rise in academia?

source: this website

A recent post on the Guardian Higher Education Network blog highlighted that mental health problems are on the rise among UK academics amid the pressures of greater job insecurity, constant demand for results and an increasingly marketised higher education system. University counselling staff and workplace health experts have seen a steady increase in numbers seeking help for mental health problems over the past decade, with research indicating nearly half of academics show symptoms of psychological distress.

The article, which reported instances of depression, sleep issues, eating disorders, alcoholism, self-harming, and even suicide attempts among PhDstudents, has been shared hundreds of thousands of times and elicited comments outlining similar personal experiences from students and academics. But while anecdotal accounts multiply, mental health issues in academia are little-researched and hard data is thin on the ground. However, a study published in 2013 by the University and College Union (UCU) actually revealed that academics experience higher stress than those in the wider population, the survey revealed.

Pat Hunt, head of Nottingham University’s counselling service for staff and students and a member of the UK body for heads of university counselling services, said all universities were experiencing an increase in mental health problems. “There are increasing levels of anxiety, both generalised and acute, levels of stress, of depression and levels of what I would call perfectionism“, she says. “By that I mean when someone is aiming for and constantly expecting really high standards, so that even when there is a positive outcome they feel they have fallen short. So instead of internal aspiration helping them to do well it actually hinders them“.

Dr Alan Swann of Imperial College London, chair of the higher education occupational physicians committee, blamed “demands for increased product and productivity” for rising levels of mental health problems among academics. He says: “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“. Swann says most academics are stressed rather than mentally unwell: “They are thinking about their work and the consequences of not being as good as they should be; they’re having difficulty switching off and feeling guilty if they’re not working seven days a week“. Academics and researchers can become isolated and not realise how “out of kilter” their working lives are, he says. The intense pressure of doctoral and post-doctoral study, and early-career academia can also reveal existing mental health problems, he adds. Universities, including Imperial, have improved systems to help, yet academia remains “pretty macho”.

Research by Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, on behalf of the UCU, offers one of the few pieces of data on mental health problems among academics. There are examples of good practice within universities which could be shared across the sector, Kinman says, but, as an independently-minded group who are strongly committed to their work, academics are not always straightforward to support. “We don’t like being told ‘you can’t email at two in the morning’. You can’t impose solutions from other sectors – academics are quite different and there’s no ‘one size fits all’“.

If academics already in post must wrestle with the stresses of fast change, what of their successors? 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“.

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