I am still reeling from a story on The CBC website this week. After two excellent posts from guest blogger Sabrina Zeddies (here and here), I thought we’d fairly addressed the topic of mental health issues on the blog – academia can be a dark and lonely place after all. But then, this story came out… and like I said, I still haven’t come to grips with it.
I strongly encourage a read – it’s about a young human geographer who, during the course of his PhD in Toronto, turned to crystal meth over a 10 year period and ended up homeless in Winnipeg. The CBC article paints a very real picture – not one you’d expect to hear about your PhD colleague:
Lidstone moved back to Winnipeg where he was born and grew up, and lived on the streets in the dead of winter. Some nights he slept on the floor of the basement bathroom of St. Boniface Hospital. His family filed a missing persons report and his picture was broadcast on television.
We’ve written about the need to identify and address mental health in academia – but the thing for me about this story is that I knew Rob, I hung out with Rob, I debated with Rob… and not once did I think that Rob showed any sign of going down the road to drug addiction and homelessness. Rob is a clever and capable man – very successful in his research and I imagine he got pretty darn good at keeping his issues to himself without showing signs to anyone. Perhaps though, people inside the university walls were simply incapable of recognizing the signs and failed to help a young student before things got bad.
As someone who trains graduate students in the sciences, I am also aware that the social sciences and humanities are very different with respect to how work gets done – much more individual, much more solitary and periods of weeks/months go by without seeing your supervisor or colleagues whilst you research your specialized subject area. I have the feeling that stories like Sabrina’s in the sciences could have much more drastic consequences if this solitude were layered onto it.
What can universities do? What should they do? We hope to explore these questions over the coming months, but one thing I can say for certain from my own experiences in the U.K. – checking off the “trained staff” box is not enough.