Mental health: the paradox of academia’s neglect of our greatest tool
In the world of elite athletics, the fitness of an athlete’s body is preserved at all cost. Athletes strengthen and protect their muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones through rigorous training and strict diet, warm up and cool down stretches, massage, acupuncture, and physical therapy and are under the watchful eyes of staff physicians. If the slightest hint of injury is detected, the injured limb is taped, wrapped, iced, and rested to prevent further injury and help the wounds heal. As injury is par for the course in athletic endeavors, and is acknowledged as a foregone conclusion under such physically demanding circumstances, injury prevention and expedient treatment is of the utmost importance and is addressed accordingly.
It is curious then, if the physical fitness of an athlete can be likened to the mental fitness of an academic, that academia does not take the same care in the prevention and treatment of the mental health challenges experienced by its students, faculty, and staff. As academics, our minds are our greatest asset, a tool honed over years of intellectual pursuit and sharpened by countless hours in the theoretic and experimental trenches. However, just like an athlete’s body experiences wear, tear, and outright injury in the pursuit of their goals, so too academics suffer immense strain on their mental fitness and overall mental health in their pursuit of knowledge and truth. Often, this results in strain on their mental health that can lead to serious consequences such as self-harm and suicide. Nevertheless, despite these very real parallels, academia is only beginning to invest in prevention and treatment in its community. Many have begun to acknowledge that mental health challenges accompany the tremendous mentally demanding rigors of academia. As such, prevention and treatment are emerging among the highest of priorities.
[J]ust like an athlete’s body experiences wear, tear, and outright injury in the pursuit of their goals, so too academics suffer immense strain on their mental fitness and overall mental health….
As a result of the previously gross negligence, academia is currently experiencing a global mental health crisis. The UK’s Wellcome Trust director, Sir Jeremy Farrar, recently remarked that the focus on academic excellence can lead to a culture of “destructive hyper-competition, toxic power dynamics, and poor leadership behavior.”1 It is therefore not surprising to find that academics, who work long hours and conduct grueling experiments in the midst of these intense conditions, suffer adverse consequences to their mental health. In academia, mental health challenges, discrimination, harassment, and bullying have long gone unchecked and unaddressed,2,3 and recent studies have found that nearly 50% of graduate students experience depression and/or anxiety,4 with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating these issues further.
To rectify the paradoxical failure of academia to address the mental health needs of its community, we call for the following five domains of mental health excellence to be considered:
Peer networks are a fantastic way to support the wellbeing of all members of the academic community. Peer networks that focus on mental health can be exclusive or inclusive of faculty, postdocs, students, or staff and can be cross-sectional and cross-departmental, depending on the size of a given department. These peer networks should facilitate ongoing peer-to-peer advice through mentoring, newsletters, and peer-recommended mental health resources and content.
Regular visible communication on mental health initiatives and programs will help normalize the incidence of mental health struggles, promote early identification, and encourage help-seeking behavior.
Yearly training organized by peer networks can help prepare peers to identify, support, and refer those who are struggling. Some good examples of training include training in Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR); Active Listening; Psychological First Aid (www.coursera.org/learn/psychological-first-aid); and Mental Health First Aid. Events held by peer networks can be used to encourage “real talk” or discussions of tough topics in order to educate and destigmatize mental health struggles and help-seeking. In addition, peer networks can utilize alternative or restorative justice methods of conflict resolution for non–Title IX related incidents.
Mental Health Literacy
Instituting regular educational programming on mental health issues and illnesses is another key avenue to ensure your academic community maintains an appropriate level of mental health literacy. This programming should be given to trainees, faculty, and staff as part of the onboarding process and should be culturally competent and representative of the community’s diverse intersectional experiences.
Conducting anonymous surveys of the community’s mental health literacy can aid in obtaining a clear understanding of where mental health literacy currently stands. Regular assessment of knowledge of emergent and non-emergent services, utilization of mental health literacy resources, and community preferences will help to prioritize future education programs and events. This will vastly improve the ability of members of your community to accurately and thoughtfully recognize, speak about, and respond to mental health struggles of their own and their colleagues.
Another great way to engage your community in mental health initiatives, while helping to prepare them for the challenges of academia, is to offer skills training workshops focused on mental health. These workshops will not only help individuals with their own mental health struggles but can train students, faculty, and staff to support members of their community through active listening and allyship and by recognizing signs of struggle and referring them to the appropriate resources. Workshops can include skills training for self-management and growth through self-compassion, meditation, active inclusion, and more.
By having skills workshops and conducting yearly assessments of them, you can measure the long- and short-term impact they have on your community and evaluate how they affect outcomes of interest related to student, faculty, and staff mental health, promotion, and success. These workshops are most effective at developing and solidifying these useful skills by interactive programs that include live practice sessions
Fighting Against Stigma
Stigma against mental health struggles is a major barrier to seeking help for those who desperately need it. Hosting yearly events to facilitate opportunities for your community to hear from those with lived experiences of mental health struggles can help fight against stigma and break down the barriers to seeking help. Conducting regular anonymous assessments of the self-stigma and social stigma associated with mental health issues within your community can be a real eye opener as well. These surveys will help you assess the climate of your academic community and determine if the culture of your institution is contributing to suffering and stigma.
Facilitating nonjudgmental community discussions can also help your community to reflect on and challenge stereotypes and stigmas they may hold. Regular visible communication on mental health initiatives and programs will help normalize the incidence of mental health struggles, promote early identification, and encourage help-seeking behavior. In addition, having clear and publicly available policies and procedures for mental health accommodations for all community members will help minimize barriers to access
A department can facilitate all of the above by creating a standing committee dedicated to mental health, publicly recognizing it as a priority that is critical to academic success. No one knows the inner workings or demands of a discipline or department like the members of that community. By instituting a departmental committee focused on mental health with representatives including students, postdocs, staff, and faculty, a department will ensure that appropriate priorities are determined and funds are allocated each year to support mental health initiatives.
These committees can work with other experts in mental health such as campus psychological services to conduct yearly evaluations of departmental mental health issues and efforts, gaining important insights into the prevalence, literacy, barriers to seeking care, and stigma against mental health challenges among their community members. To encourage honest feedback, these evaluations are typically best conducted anonymously. If a department is too small to ensure anonymity and protect privacy, then we recommend partnering with other related departments, which will also reduce and share the burden on faculty, students, and staff who serve on this committee.
Far too many communities are ill prepared to respond when crisis strikes….
Yearly evaluation will provide the committee a clearer understanding of the needs of its community and enable it to prioritize goals and initiatives, determine what has been helpful, and decide what next steps should be implemented to improve mental health. This committee could also advocate establishing effective and compassionate protocols for mental health issues such as reporting and responding to mental health policy violations and establishing a postvention plan in the event that a suicide occurs. Far too many communities are ill prepared to respond when crisis strikes, which can lead to lasting damage to survivors. Postvention plans, for example, should include compassionate communication, short- and long-term community support strategies, and ongoing monitoring of survivor wellbeing. Taking the time prior to a loss will radically improve the often catastrophic impact of losing a community member to suicide and mental illness.
Together, these five domains of excellence will begin to raise academia to match the Olympic standards of our elite athletes. When the mental health of the academic community is properly protected and cared for, who knows what intellectual summit we will conquer next!
1Nature Editors (2019). A kinder research culture is possible. Nature 574, 5–6. doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02951-4.
2Woolston C (2019). PhDs: The torturous truth. Nature 575, 403–406. doi:10.1038/d41586-019-03459-7.
3Auerbach RP, Mortier P, Bruffaerts R, et al. (2018). WHO World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project: Prevalence and distribution of mental disorders. J Abnorm Psychol. 127, 623–638. doi:10.1037/abn0000362.
4Evans T, Bira L, Gastelum J, et al. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nat Biotechnol 36, 282–284.
There are many organizations and resources that can help you address these five domains. Some examples include:
We formed Dragonfly to deal with these issues and welcome you to use our resources. For example, to learn more about starting your own peer network, you can view an introductory workshop for free here: https://youtu.be/ow6_-lOctjg.
An example of a basic mental health literacy seminar recently delivered to Berkeley Labs can be found for free here: https://youtu.be/_7bKwwKK9eY?t=651.
Dragonfly Mental Health offers a variety of skills workshops and would be happy to work with you to deliver one on your campus. Please inquire here: https://forms.gle/NjM9KJhB6LgVGg1H6.
An example of an anti-stigma campaign at University of California, Berkeley, which involved interviewing faculty about their own lived experience, can be found here: https://youtu.be/NMR3Ar9qvGI.
Dragonfly Mental Health is currently working on a postvention plan recommendation for academic institutions that will be posted for free on our website in the coming year. It also offers consulting services to departments wishing to create their own departmental committee: www.dragonflymentalhealth.com.
You can learn more about cultivating excellent mental health in academia at Cell Bio Virtual 2020 this December in a workshop hosted by COMPASS and Dragonfly Mental Health on Friday, December 4, from 1:00–2:30 pm ET.
About the Author:
Roo Steinberg is founder of Dragonfly Mental Health, a nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating excellent mental health among academics worldwide (www.dragonflymentalhealth.com).
Wendy Ingram is founder of Dragonfly Mental Health, a nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating excellent mental health among academics worldwide (www.dragonflymentalhealth.com).