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The Black Hole

Will 2021 be the year for improving mental health in academia?

This past year has accentuated issues that needed to have some light shone on them and we should be very careful not to push them back in the darkness.

BY DAVID KENT | DEC 31 2020

Alongside exposing numerous systemic weaknesses in scientific and medical infrastructure, 2020 has also been guilty of exposing some deep-seated issues in the state of academic mental health. People that regularly operate on the thinnest of margins with respect to time-management have had to overhaul their teaching delivery, take on part-time or full-time caring responsibilities, isolate themselves from their peer support network, and generally push themselves an extra little bit to make 2020 work. Cracks emerged, people were broken, careers failed or sit teetering on the brink, and when help was sought, the common refrains emerged:

“It’s okay, no one else is productive either, it’s been hard on everyone.”

Well, yes, sort of.  But I can pretty much guarantee that that a single-parent, end of contract postdoctoral fellow had a much harder year than a recently funded group leader with little to no hands-on responsibilities in the lab. Point being – yes 2020 sucked, but it sucked way more for some than others.

“It’s okay, universities are flexible – they will understand.”

It is true that most universities are likely to be here next year and will not shut like so many other businesses (although not all are protected) It is also true that universities have some of the most liberal thinkers in their employment. However, this in no way seems to translate to practical protection or support for those whose careers are irreparably damaged/delayed by factors beyond their control.  Also since research is typically slow to deliver, when exactly is the negative impact “seen” or measured?

“It’s okay, maybe this year just got you to your decision faster.”

This stings. Especially if the person being spoken to didn’t make the decision and had it made for them instead. Academic research shouldn’t simply select for the most mentally or financially resilient people – this year has been such a backwards step for early career researchers in particular.

“It’s okay, 2021 will be better.”

Will it? While it is hard to imagine worse, if this year has taught us anything, it’s that things can go pear shaped rather quickly.

None of this is okay. And perhaps more importantly, whilst COVID-19 has shed a light on some particularly dramatic human stories, these stories (and the namby-pamby responses) are not unique to 2020, but have been bouncing around academic science for decades. We need to do better and I hope that we can use 2021 to initiate some real change in how we support and develop our scientific workforce for the future.

We should seize whatever moment of whatever day, week, month, or year and do the things that are important to us. If you are in academic research, step back and think about why you do what you do and (hopefully!) channel that energy into a kick ass year of collaboration, excitement, and discovery. When you get back into some semblance of normality, remember to celebrate success, support your colleagues, and help improve the way research is done.

And for reaching beyond 2021 and a post COVID-19 vaccine world, let’s try and use this past year of experiential learning from some really horrible stories to reinforce what’s not okay as well:

  • It’s not okay that “support” comes only when requested
  • It’s not okay to push colleagues to tears
  • It’s not okay to give your blessing with silence
  • It’s not okay that women are expected to just “weather the storm”
  • It’s not okay for institutions to be blind to what happens in their backyard

The list could go on for pages with many issues reaching beyond this short set. The important thing is that we don’t bury 2020 as a “blip year” – it has simply accentuated some issues that have been dying to have some light shone on them and we should be very careful not to push them back in the darkness before developing meaningful ways to make the academic training environment a place of inspiration and learning as opposed to some sort of survival-of-the-fittest contest. Here’s hoping for a prosperous and exciting 2021!

ABOUT DAVID KENT
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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  1. James Deaville / January 6, 2021 at 14:26

    It’s not okay to overwhelm faculty, staff and students with “extra” Zoom meetings and sessions about developing “healthy” attitudes towards the pandemic.

    It’s not okay to presume that one solution fits all issues of mental health within the university community.

    • David Kent / January 6, 2021 at 14:53

      Well said James!