This post has been inspired by a couple of recent posts on the Guardian Higher Education Network website. It represents my thought and experiences. If it helps others I welcome that.
The growing awareness of mental health in academia is to be welcomed. I had my own experience of ‘coming out’ about my depression to myself, my doctor, my family, friends and colleagues. In accordance with stereotypical male behaviour I tried to avoid ‘bothering’ the doctor for at least two or three years. I was worried that I would be labelled ‘a hypochondriac’, or worse still be put on strong medication which would render me unable to function at work and in life generally. I feared a treatment worse than the disease.
Even after starting treatment I didn’t tell anyone what was going on. The only people who knew to start with were my wife and my doctor. After a few months of taking medication (which actually got working quite quickly) I wrote about my depression on my blog. Lots of people supported me and wished me well—family, friends, colleagues, strangers even. Several friends, mostly men my sort of age (late 30s), wrote to me about their own experiences. In many cases they too had hidden it from others.
One thing I’ve learnt in the past couple of years is that we seem to be talking about mental health problems a lot more. This might be due to my experience heightening my awareness, but this particular emphasis on mental health academia intrigues me. In my experience mental health struggles cross barriers of gender, class, religion, ethnicity, sexuality and occupation. Are academics really more prone to mental health problems than lorry drivers, builders, shop assistants, professional footballers, insurance brokers, nurses, unemployed people, elderly people, stay-at-home mums and dads etc.? Or are people with mental health problems somehow attracted to academic careers?
The Guardian Higher Education Network pieces seem to suggest that mental health problems in academia are worse than other professions or that academia is some sort of special case. Perhaps academia attracts people with mental health problems. These questions are beyond my expertise, so I default to my own experience here: As I came to contemplate the possibility of an academic career in the final year of my undergraduate degree I looked to academia as a higher calling. I saw what I believed was a highly ethical occupation where people respected each other, a true meritocracy where the best rose to the top, and nobody resented it. Maybe not the not paid job, certainly not the worst and an opportunity to live the life of the mind. 11 years post-PhD I now see that academia is a real job in the real world. I still regard it a special privilege, but I don’t see it so much as an exalted calling now.
Perhaps we also expect a community of thousands of people committed to critical thought in their respective fields of study to be a more supportive and understanding environment than other workplaces. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.
Some, but not all the reasons behind my own depression related to my previous job. The last two years of that job were turbulent for reasons beyond my own influence or that of any of my immediate colleagues. My full time job become part time but the workload only seemed to increase. I took on more and more in the hope I could work my way out of the situation. I reassured myself that anyone who was not overburdened wasn’t working hard enough. Eventually I began to recognise that a change was necessary if anything was going to change. Having stabilised my health I was able to re-enter the job market and now have a job I am happy in and doing the sorts of things I’ve long wanted to do. It is not a weakness to look for opportunities elsewhere if the present situation isn’t working.
The only regret I have now is not seeing the doctor sooner. I regret visiting the doctor for other ‘physical’ ailments and not telling him/her what was going in my mind. Here’s my only direct piece of advice: Doctors are not mind readers. If you are feeling depressed, anxious, afraid or suicidal you need to tell them. Don’t be too proud to get help. I’m still on the medication – I don’t know how long for – but seeking professional help has brought me to a much better place in every area of my life.