The academic life and mental illness

The academic life for staff and students defies common perceptions and is one of the most stressful jobs around. It contains many triggers for depression and anxiety.

My mother thought that being an academic was one of the cushiest jobs she could imagine – a couple of lectures a week and holidays for six months of the year. She thought students had it even easier having to go to those few lectures, take an exam or two a year, and spend the rest of the time travelling the world. She also thought they were out partying every night, finishing drinking at 3 a.m. and then trashing the town. I suspect she was not alone in her prejudices. How wrong these common perceptions are. I think being an academic, and being a student, is one of the worst careers for aggravating, even causing, mental illness. The job has the following triggers.

  1. The work is open ended. How I used to envy people with 9-5 jobs. Academics and students are never finished because there is always just one more job to do, whether it’s another paper to read or write or a textbook to go through again. When I was Dean it amused me that HR had a workload model for academics of 40 hours a week. I don’t know anyone who worked less than 50, and many did much more. What is there to stop us? We don’t leave the building and down keypads just because the clock moves on to 5, or because it’s the weekend. And if you should finish one job, there’s always another to do. There’s nothing to stop us doing more. Few things are more stressful than knowing you have an uncompleted task to do, and that you could be doing it, and that you have the time to dot it.
  2. What is work anyway? The same analysis is true of holidays as is true of the working week. I know of several academics who have booked annual leave in order to carry out research. When I go on “holiday” I read psychology articles and books, as do most people I know. When I was a student I would spend the vacation working in a factory in order to earn money as well as studying while travelling and in the evenings and weekends. Those maths worksheets seemed never ending. Christmas will find us reading and writing. For us there’s no such thing as a proper holiday.
  3. The work contains contradictory elements. We’re expected to carry out world-leading research as well as teach to the highest standard, and you get evaluated on both. I know there is some carryover between teaching and research, but time you spend teaching is time you can’t spend doing research, and vice versa. Contradiction is stressful.
  4. Giving a lecture or presentation or tutorial is stressful. Fear of public talking is one of the most common fears, being strong enough to count as a phobia for many people. Yet we have to do it all the time. Training is often inadequate. Some students find they’re not really prepared and although they might be taught how to organise their material and how to use Powerpoint I don’t know of anywhere that teaches them about the fear of speaking and how to overcome it. I’ve known of several students being physically sick before having to give a seminar. Speaking feeds fears.
  5. Deadlines. The life of the teacher and student are very similar in they they’re both full of deadlines. You have to give that lecture tomorrow or hand in that essay by 4 p.m. You can’t decide you’re going to take the day off instead. You need to be really, really sick before you call in. Deadlines are often too close together or even on the same day. Deadlines are exceptionally stressful.
  6. You have to organise your own time. One day you think you’re settling down to finish writing your 4 p.m. lecture, or finish your essay, when something happens. Your manager or supervisor wants to see you urgently (and it’s nearly always urgently). Your car won’t start. Your child or dog is unwell. There are suddenly 15 new pressing emails. Someone wants to see you and just won’t stop talking about their problem. And worse than deadlines are jobs with no deadlines because unless you’re very careful they never get done. You live from one deadline to another, one essay or lab report handed in to the next. So just when do you do that background reading, or write that important paper that could help you get promoted? When there’s no deadline and you’re tired and fed up it’s easy just to stop. And many deadlines aren’t real, anyway: do a a journal review by the end of the month? Sure, I’ll agree tot hat. Get to the 31st, and no problem, because everyone knows that if you send the review on the 1st it won’t matter, and what’s the difference between the 2nd and the 1st? When I was Dean I was always giving deadlines for jobs that I needed to follow up on, and less than half the staff would do the job before my deadline. What was I to do? Fire someone for being two days late with a document? In any case they were probably just busy with the last thing I asked them to do. The problem is that delays cascade. No-deadlines are often worse than deadlines.
  7. There is far much more rejection than praise. Journal acceptance rates are very low and grant rejection rates are very high. I’ve known people to send off an excellent grant proposal ten times before it gets accepted, and much outstanding research never gets funded. How demoralising it that? Feedback for students is mainly a long list of things you’ve done wrong. Of course that’s good in a way because you want to learn and improve, but persistent negative feedback gets to you. After a while people develop learned helplessness. Continual negative feedback is stressful and causes depression.
  8. It’s an exceptionally competitive environment for staff and students. Not everyone can get promoted every year. Not everyone can get a grant. The top journal can’t publish everything. Not every student can get an A every time. Perpetual competition is stressful.
  9. Some people are stars (but you’re not). But if you don’t succeed you sure will be aware of someone who has. You have to congratulate them through gritted teeth. Although you are struggling just to manage, you will know at least one person who seems to sail though. In every field or every department or ever class there is at least one Einstein. We admire them, we have to praise them, but really they just make us feel worse. Comparison makes us feel sick.
  10. EMAIL is evil. When I was Dean for every email I had to send I would get at least three back. It would be easy to spend all day doing nothing other than email. I am not alone: everyone I know is dreaming in a sea of email. And then there’s social media which some find compulsive. Often when lecturing you suspect every student is checking their messages or Facebook status. How demoralising is that? How do we cope when we’re striving in a sea of email that gets deeper every day? Smash up every computer or phone you see.

These triggers are more numerous than in many jobs. You might say other careers are bad too, but often they are better paid, and students aren’t paid at all – in fact they have to pay to have all this fun. And staff and students are often the sort of people who are least able to cope, having been brought up learning to expect to succeed.

I have no solutions. If you decide you’re going to take a real holiday for a month, you know that the departmental Einstein won’t, and they’ll have a stronger case for promotion than you at the end of the year. Off sick for a week and dare not to do that marking? When you come back that marking will still be there, but with another pile to join it, now with the same deadline. Oh, and whatever you do there will be two hundred emails in your inbox.

One thing we can do is face our weakness and admit we’re struggling, that we’re feeling anxious, that our agoraphobia has been triggered and we’re scared to go out, that we’re too depressed to talk, that our OCD has come back and is making us check every mark ten times (actually for me it has to be a multiple of three). To return to where I started, my mother thought mental illness, unlike physical illness, was a weakness. She was very, very wrong. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, and talking about it is better than getting so bad that all you can think about is suicide.

 

Author: trevorharley

I am Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland. I am the author of several books, including the best selling texts "The psychology of language" (now in its fourth edition) and "Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science". I am currently also writing books on the science of consciousness and on the philosophy of science as applied to psychology (the latter with Richard Wilton), with both due to be published in 2017. Several other books are in the pipeline. My research interests are varied and I have published widely in some of the leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. My interests include language production, how we represent meaning, computer models of the mind, sleep and dreams, consciousness, mental illness, personality and motivation, the effects of brain damage on behaviour, and how the weather influences behaviour. I believe passionately that scientists, particularly those paid from the public purse, have a duty to explain what they do to that public. I also believe that we can reach a wide audience by the use of social media and new ways of explaining what we do. In my spare time I use stand-up comedy to talk about my research; a few years ago I appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe. One of the strangest things about being a comic is that I am often severely depressed (as well as anxious and obsessive). I have been on many types of medication, with varying degrees of success. When depressed I am always struck by how pointless everything seems: nothing seems worthwhile, and those things that I usually enjoy (playing the piano - even if not very well, looking at the natural world, reading, watching movies) no longer entice. My interest in things is a very accurate barometer of how well I am. I have realised that some mental illnesses, particularly severe mood disorders, are in part a loss of purpose and meaning in life. Becoming well involves recovering this purpose. I am also very keen to help remove the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. All of my life I have been puzzled by the question of what is the best way to spend my time. This blog is my search for answer to that question. In it I talk about my life, psychology, mental illness, purpose, living a better life, time management, existential despair, death (making me a death blogger I suppose), being creative, writing, and trying to write when depressed. I try and blog once a week or so; long silences usually mean I'm too depressed to write. For more information about me, see the home page of my website at www.trevorharley.com. I welcome comments on my blog, or if you prefer you can email me at trevor.harley@mac.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @trevharley.

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