Contributor Dr. Lydia Hayward writes this week’s blog post on having frank conversations about our mental health.
Mental health problems have emerged as a growing issue in academia. According to recent reports, more than half of all graduate students feel depressed “a lot of the time“, and graduate students are also at an elevated risk of suicide. One important solution to this problem, of course, is for universities to invest more resources in the prevention and treatment of mental health issues among their students and staff. But in my view there is something else that we can all do to help, starting right now: we can agree to work towards creating a cultural shift in how we talk about mental health, starting with a conversation about our everyday struggles.
We all have struggles. But the academic environment presents a unique set of challenges, particularly for those just starting out in their careers. The academic job market is highly competitive and appears to be getting worse, with more and more graduates and fewer and fewer jobs. This is resulting in overwhelming pressure to excel — to get more (and better) publications, to acquire research funding, to network, to make a name for oneself — all while being expected to teach and demonstrate service to one’s university. Graduate students are also particularly susceptible to the imposter phenomenon: feeling like they don’t belong in academia and are only getting through on luck.
These stressors and harmful feelings are exacerbated by the fact that we do not talk about our struggles. Because we’re not hearing people say they are struggling, we assume they are doing great! We see those around us as near-perfect beings, continually publishing high-quality papers in top-tier journals and seemingly doing it all without so much as a hint of suffering, while we’re sitting at our desks struggling to focus on the task at hand. In reality, however, many are struggling – even if, on the outside, they may seem to be functioning quite well (see Jolene’s story). Indeed, once I began to open up to my fellow students about my own concerns and insecurities when I was in graduate school, I realised that almost every one of them had similar experiences.
So why do we so often hide away behind veneers of success? For one thing, we fear being ‘found out’ as those imposters who aren’t good enough to “hack it” in academia. Also (and importantly), there is still stigma attached to admitting that we are struggling. Acknowledging struggles is seen as admitting weakness; furthermore, because none of us typically like to make our struggles known, when we do open up to (even well-intentioned) others they often assume that we are at breaking point and respond with pity. But people who open up about their struggles are not looking for pity; they are looking for understanding, for empathy, for validation, for support.
Of course, opening up about our struggles is not easy. I was fortunate enough to complete my PhD in an incredibly supportive and nurturing lab environment, yet it was (understandably) still difficult to have honest discussions about our feelings of inadequacy and failure. However, until we are open about our everyday struggles, our stories will continue to be obscured by our seemingly perfect veneers; we will continue to perpetuate a culture where success is defined by an unachievable standard of perfection, and where failure is defined as anything less.
I believe that if we band together and all attempt to shift the dialogue surrounding mental health to include everyday struggles, we can start to chip away at the false beliefs that perpetuate the current uncompromising culture of success.
It is important to stress that by promoting a dialogue about everyday struggles, I am not intending to take anything away from the discussion surrounding the needs of graduate students with mental illnesses. We certainly need to make a conscious effort to provide support and resources to those who live with chronic mental health conditions and push universities to do the same. However, the feelings of inadequacy and insecurity are widespread in the academic community. They can contribute to, and exacerbate, depression and anxiety, and we need to make it normal to discuss them. Breaking down the barrier for people to say “right now, I’m not really OK” can open the door for people struggling with more severe distress to say “I’m not OK, and I need help”.
My hope is that, one day, I can be part of a culture where success is defined not by perfection, but by honest vulnerability and the strength to admit imperfection. When we can see that those above us and around us are not superhuman beings but are in fact real people with real struggles, then just maybe we will begin to see our own vulnerabilities as strengths to reveal, not weaknesses to hide away.
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Lydia Hayward completed her PhD in Social Psychology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia earlier this year and is now a postdoc at UNSW in Sydney. She studies the predictors and consequences of prejudice (racism, weight stigma) and is passionate about promoting equality and tolerance in our communities. She is also passionate about eating chocolate and binge-watching Netflix – especially when the two are combined.