Mental Health in Academia – My own case study
We spend most of our awake hours at work, we also spend every conscious hour inside our heads. Our work and mind environments should be pleasant places to be. These should be environments where we feel safe, comfortable, at peace, stimulated, and even joyful; spaces where we can and dare to try driven by curiosity and without fear of failure. Unfortunately, academia is infamous for harbouring hostile environments, particularly for early career researchers and minority groups. Such conditions are, to say the least, inadequate for mental work and terrible for mental health.
Thanks to AcademicTwitter, I have compiled some texts, essays, and tips that have helped me put into perspective the weight I give to an “academic career” in balance with my mental health. Below, I share three pieces of work that have given me a feast for thought.
- Avoid workplaces that don’t value you. “You may pine to work in a particular lab or be tempted to take a job that will add prestige to your CV, thinking that is your route to success. But if you end up in a situation where you’re devalued, it’s often not worth it because you’ll end up unhappy and unproductive, and more importantly, it will take a toll on your well-being.” Alaina G. Levine. doi: 10.1126/science.caredit.ada1271
- The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Although I am aware of the grant-based system in academia and how it limits curiosity driven research, I want to be part of and promote environments where people are not scared to say, “I don’t know”, even if, like in this essay by Martin A. Schwartz, the person is a Nobel laureate. Enough of “I am an expert, therefore I know everything, and this is how it is.” https://doi.org/10.1242/jcs.033340
- How bullying becomes a career tool. By now, we are all aware of how widespread bullying is in academia. Most of us have heard of someone with a “bully” reputation, and we show concern and empathy for the person(s) that might be experiencing it. However, as I have sadly discovered, bullying is a whole different animal when you are on the receiving end of it. This essay by Susanne Tauber and Morteza Mahmoudi crystallises what I know now to be true. It not only gives words to a terrible experience, but it also has made me feel seen and accompanied by many invisible others. Let’s do and demand for better. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-022-01311-z
How I take care of my mental health
I am lucky to have support netwoks like my family, friends, and work colleagues with whom I can share my concerns. However, at many moments the mental burden has been so heavy that I had to look for professional counsel, and I totally recommend it. Having the space to speak freely with my psychologist has helped me see myself with more compassion, giving a new perspective to many situations that I had already talked and thought about over and over, with others and in my head. Therapy has also helped me discover my own tools to feel more in control of my emotions, without suppressing them or adding a negative tint to them.
Remembering that I am far more than my chosen career path has also been key to regaining control of my own story. Practicing old and new hobbies has allowed me to enjoy a wider perspective and even the sense of achievement that I can savour within myself without the pressure of recognition. Sharing my time with old and new friends reminds me to look at myself with the same kind eyes that they do.
I might not have the stereotypical traits to fit in hostile academic environments (mind you, I don’t want to), yet I thrive in the mentally challenging, and supportive ones. I know that I can be good at science and be a successful academic under my own definition of success. On my list of KPIs, feeling physically and mentally healthy is right at the top.
PS. Feel free to contact me should you need a listening ear, or a copy of the essays I have referenced.