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The Black Hole

How can we best support the mental health of senior academics?

Many of the mental health challenges universities are trying to address tend to be exacerbated by the pride of academics themselves.


In my last post, I reflected on the “work harder” culture in scientific labs across the world and alluded to the mental health strain that such a work culture can cause. This is not to say that everyone who works hard faces inevitable burnout, but it is notable that the last five years or so have witnessed a step-change in the amount of time, money, and discussions dedicated to dealing with the mental health of students, staff, early career researchers, and senior academics.

In 2018, Universities UK released a report entitled “Minding our future: starting a conversation about the support of student mental health” which is an excellent (and speedy!) browse for anybody who hasn’t given the new focus on mental health much thought and won’t sit down to learn much about it. Central to the document is the idea of “starting a conversation”, acknowledging that there are no overnight solutions, but that it is critical to first understand the broader issues in order to best support students, instructors, and researchers. Two important facts jump out:

1) Over half the U.K. population will now attend university by the age of 30 meaning that students are more representative of the wider community than ever before, and

2) An increasing number of students are disclosing a mental health condition to their higher education institution.

Between 2008 and 2016, both graduates (6.4-fold increase) and undergraduates (5.8 fold increase) have increasingly disclosed mental health conditions. The optimist might see this as a good thing – people feel more comfortable in disclosing conditions – but the pessimist may see this as an alarming rate of increase in poor mental health amongst the next generation. Either way you see it, the reality is that there are at least 56,000 students in U.K. universities (across 165 institutions) with mental health conditions, meaning that hundreds, if not thousands, of students in YOUR institution have disclosed a mental health condition and are getting highly variable levels of support. I haven’t looked up all the numbers in Canada, but at least one report from Ontario suggests that the broad trends are similar with respect to both increased provision and increased disclosure (if readers have numbers, we’d love to have them too!).

In the past, we have largely written anecdotally or superficially in this area – notably, Sabrina Zeddies’ series on postdoctoral collapse and helping to publicize positive efforts to address mental health and research culture. While there are certainly significant efforts to improve care for mental health conditions underway with many already making an impact, it will be challenging to address the depth of the problems in the upper echelons of the academic hierarchy.

Passive self-identification is not sufficient

It seems that the vast majority of activity in the mental health space is to offer services to those who feel they may need them. This relies on the individual self-identifying as “in need” and academics are not necessarily the best at disclosing weaknesses, especially considering that many of them have spent years perfecting how to hide their weaknesses in the hunt for their position in the first place. In a Times Higher Education piece, one academic living with depression admits hiding her condition for fear of the negative repercussions. These lines resonate:

“For those choosing to disclose their illness, the best-case scenario is that colleagues will see you as emotionally weak. More often than not, if you declare your illness, it will not be acknowledged. Powerful discourses deem depression to be nothing but a lack of internal resources, a failure to take opportunities, or enforced alienation in response to, or as a symptom of, the marketization of the academy.”

Relying on senior academic staff to acknowledge and address concerns around their mental health seems wishful thinking at best. Compounding this is the belief held by some that they are smarter than any “help” they could get anyway, and these people often fail to see the point in engaging with the process.

What can we do to identify and/or support people who won’t seek help?

It seems that most universities have enlisted a third party contract service to provide a 24 hour support line for staff in crisis that will either refer people to emergency services, give access to urgent counselling, or give a telephone based counselling. This type of service can be problematic. Firstly, they are generally not set up to help the individual, but rather to help the individual be more productive at work. Secondly it is rarely sufficiently specialized to serve academic researchers and the particular stresses of this job. That said, these services do seem to provide one service really well – they tick the box of “we take care of our staff.”

On the other hand, some universities and individual departments do try and support their researchers in more meaningful ways and we would love to see more of this activity. Two such examples include:

1) Peer support – this can be done in many ways (formal mentoring relationships, informal discussions) but the general idea is to take advantage of the experiential learning of others who have been there before. The difficulty here is that is heavily reliant on the goodwill and support of colleagues and it may preferentially support some people based on their relationships, background, or status within a department.

2) Weaving support mechanisms into formal settings – most departments and institutes have regular mandatory meetings for senior staff and these are excellent opportunities to get meaningful exposure for things that might otherwise get brushed under the rug. Many of us already have items such as open access, equality and diversity, and public engagement, why not expand to team management, dealing with HR issues, and counselling services?

Overall, we have a huge way to go when it comes to supporting the mental health of academic staff and most of the challenges tend to be exacerbated by the pride of academics themselves. As one brave academic put it in a recent eLife article:

“In reality we, like our students, frequently experience stress, fear and insecurity as well as anxiety, depression and burn out”, but continuing that “As faculty, many believe that admitting we are stressed or going through a mental health crisis would be a mistake.”


David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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