July 1, 2014

A ‘culture of acceptance’? Academia and mental health

A recent blog and article in The Guardian’s education pages debated the results of research (Steven Court and Gail Kinman “Tackling Stress in Higher Education”, UCU 2013) and whether there is a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia.

Academics and PhD students described the effect of job insecurity, unreasonable constant demand for results and increased productivity, a marketised higher-education system, the pressure of working excessively and often to the point of illness, a long-hours culture, and for PhD students, financial instability and changes to personal circumstances. This, said many, lead to their suffering depression, sleep issues, eating disorders, alcoholism, binge-drinking, self-harming, and suicide attempts. One PhD student posited: “Have I worked so hard that illness has become normal?”

For some, the issue is exacerbated by supervisors and department heads who may have little or no experience of managing complex personnel issues, perhaps with a lack of awareness of mental health, unable to spot the signs of students and staff who may be experiencing difficulties. There is still, according to some, a culture of ‘if you can’t stand the pressure, you shouldn’t be here’, with some senior academics who ‘don’t care’ or are inflexible.

Court & Kinman argue also that the blurring lines between of personal and professional life are promoted by academia – the ‘doing what you love’, meaning there is a weak culture or understanding among academics of drawing the line, or having value in themselves beyond work.

While university counselling staff and OH departments have seen an increase in mental health referrals, for many academics using support services may also be an admission of defeat. There is an attitude that “My brain is my work tool, I cannot be seen to be mentally weak, instead I must strive for perfectionism”. In a mental health survey undertaken by The Guardian, two thirds of academics suffering mental health problems did not tell colleagues or their supervisors that they had a problem, with one third not seeking professional help.

But is medical intervention the only answer? There is a real concern that ‘medicalising’ the issue diverts attention to the individual sufferer and from the potential work-related causes of health problems.

In many universities therefore, there may be three barriers to overcoming a ‘culture of acceptance’ – a culture of overwork, management know-how and the stigma of admission. As well as the mental health risk to individuals from such a culture, there is also the human resources risk – of departments which develop siege cultures, or cultures of fear; also the prospect of litigation for personal injury, discrimination and employment disputes.

What, practically, can be done? Would-be medical doctors will be fully aware from the media of the stresses of their role before they start – their hours, working environment, work-related stresses. Can more be done to inform PhD students of the issues that they may well face, the cultural environment, the pressures of the role? Mental health practitioners argue yes, that there is a “broader civic duty” to educate would-be academics of their role and culture.

But education – and warnings – to potential academics are not enough; to comply with their duty of care to students and employees, universities must consider whether there are practical ways in which the potential work-related causes of mental health issues can be addressed. There is no easy answer, but a failure to even attempt to conduct appropriate risk assessments or to the issue may cause complications should legal proceedings ensue.

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