Depression in academia and suggestions for change

I thought long and hard about writing this post, a post very personal to me and difficult to write, so I hope readers can appreciate why I have done it. Allowing me to reflect on my own journey has helped me list some suggestions for change – together we can reduce academic depression.

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Depression. A word not fully understood and in many cases not fully accepted, yet a word that oh too often comes up in conversations with fellow academics. I was diagnosed with depression a long time before my academic journey commenced but it’s actually only recently I have come to terms with the fact I will always live with depression and I am not ashamed to talk to people about it. My depression is related to feelings of worthlessness, failure and lonliness and I have been reflecting on how my academic life has impacted on my depression, to the point where I have, at many times, considered leaving the field. Having become more open with friends and colleagues at work about my depression I have learnt that I am certainly not alone and for many people their depression starts when they enter academic life – this got me thinking about what makes academia so detrimental to our mental health, where do the problems lie? In order to think about this let me reflect on my own battle with depression in academia.

I can be sitting in a room full of people and feel like the loneliest person on the planet, I can work my hardest and never feel I have achieved anything, I can receive compliments but never believe them. This is my depression. Unfortunately academia is probably the worst career choice I could have made as each of the issues have been exacerbated. As a PhD student and early career researcher I found myself very much isolated from any academic community. Any PhD student will tell you it is a lonely process, each PhD candidate is focused on their own research, supervisors just want to see students through to the end, in my experience, no-one was really that interested in what I was doing. The nature of my research project meant I had very few people to speak to about my study and no outlets for group discussion. The PhD was a very lonely process for me. Despite me passing my PhD with very minimal corrections,the lack of interest from my examiners to help me publish or support me on future projects meant it all seemed a bit pointless. 4 years of hard work and nobody seemed to care about the outcome and as an inexperienced academic I had no way of knowing how to use my findings in an impactful way. So years later my PhD now lies gathering dust as though it did not even happen. Whilst at first achieving a PhD may seem like a great achievement, I soon came to realise that a thesis that gathers dust is a demoralising as no PhD at all.

Let’s fast forward to my journey as a postdoc and early career researcher. During my time as a postdoc researcher I found myself battling the peer review processes, facing constant rejection with little support. As a sufferer of depression this hit me hard, a total feeling of worthlessness and failure and often left me questioning why I bothered to stay in academia at all. As an early career researcher I often met wonderful people who told me stories of principal investigators, readers and professors helping them with their journal submissions, including them on research bids and inviting them to join conference panels. I was always so happy for them, but it always left me wondering, why wasn’t this happening to me. I blamed myself, it was my own fault for not being good enough, that I was out of my depth in academia and didn’t belong there. I was too scared to speak to people I didn’t know at conferences, to intimidated to ask to be included in projects and ultimately too naive to think someone would just approach me out of the blue. These experiences fuelled my depression, which resulted in a vicious cycle of self-loathing. Over the years I came to realise that I wasn’t alone and I witnessed many very talented early career researchers seek counselling, take sick leave and question their worth. There is nothing worse than being excluded from group research bids, left out of conference trips, or forgotten about when that special journal issue editor doesn’t ask for your contribution. Is it silly to get so worked up over, let’s face it, trivial work place issues? Most probably yes, but as someone who feels like they had to climb a mountain just to be accepted, you may as well be pushing them back down it and telling them to start again. Academia is brutal and in my view preys on the vulnerable, it is no place for people who rely on acceptance and appreciation of their hard work.

Now, as a full time academic, I can look back and trace my journey of depression in academia and realise that much of my depression stems from the structures of the academic world. I still battle with feelings of worthlessness and I have to admit that every couple of months I login to job sites trying to find an escape from academia. This in many ways doesn’t help because you soon come to realise that 15 years of hard work won’t get you much outside the University walls, and for me I have become stuck. I feel like a failure in academia and yet can’t seem to get out. I once tried applying for non-academic posts only to be told, I’m overqualified or they want “real world” experience, truth be told, I wish I had never done a PhD. Whilst many may aspire to have my career (I use that term very lightly), I honesty believe that my depression will haunt me until the day I leave. The demand for publications, the demand for research income, the demand for high NSS scores, the never ending incoming emails, the growing student numbers; the list is endless. Even if you succeed in one you always feel like you have failed at another, I have yet to experience job satisfaction in all these demands, so once again every time you feel you might just be achieving something, you find find yourself questioning your abilities at something else.

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BUT. It doesn’t have to be this way and with some changes I really do believe we can do more to reduce feelings of loneliness, worthlessness and failure in academia. Here are my suggestions for change:

  1. All PhD supervisors need to be much more attentive to their PhD candidates and they should be responsible for supporting them even after the PhD is awarded. Include them (where possible) on publications and research projects.
  2. Senior academics need to be aware that a lack of scholarship from an early career researcher may be due to a lack of confidence and not just assume that individual is lazy or incapable.
  3. Colleagues should make more effort to attend each other’s conference presentations, seminars and workshops. Whilst it may not be your specialist area, take it from me  having a colleague turn up to support you means much more than you think. 
  4. Senior management should identify the strengths of their academics and stop expecting every member of staff to hit the targets of research, teaching and writing. I strongly believe that HEI’s should bring back research posts and teaching posts and not require both from all staff. Doing this would allow individuals to focus their efforts on what they believe they are good at rather than forcing them to undertake work that makes them feel worthless.
  5. Avoid using phrases like ‘just write’, ‘network with people’, ‘you’ll get there’ or ‘everyone gets rejected you get used to it’. These are the worst things that can be said to an academic with depression.
  6. Don’t introduce me to someone at a conference and then leave me with them either, I don’t know what to say and the conversation will leave me feeling worse not better
  7. Celebrate the success of your colleagues, not matter how minor that success may appear, for all you know that tiny bit of success has made them feel like they’re on top of the world.

These are just some of my own suggestions for change, if you have your own, I would love to hear them, get them out there so people can learn to value one another and listen to those who have been through it. I continue my battle with depression everyday but do have hope that one day things might change, for now I promise to keep raising awareness of depression in academia and treating others with the respect they deserve. Being someone who takes the time to listen is a very small ask, but it could just make your colleague feel they are not alone and they are not worthless, I ask each and every one of you reading this, let’s make a change.

 

 

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