On University Mental Health Day - Don't Forget the Lecturers

Our 2015 Health Survey revealed a startling statistic. Eighty-eight per cent of those working in Higher Education had experienced a mental health issue in the last two years. On University Mental Health Day (3 March), we remind the sector to include academic staff in its wellbeing campaign. 

Anonymous lecturer: “There’s not very much support to be honest”

I am a language development lecturer at a Birmingham university. One of the biggest pressures for academics is the marking. A lot of it is student expectation that you will mark all of the exam scripts as their lecturer and a strict turnaround deadline of 20 days. That means that twice a semester, you could have anywhere from 150-200 assignments to mark, and those can be up to 3,000 words each.

During marking time, I’ll probably get into work at 6:30am and leave at 8pm, before doing more at home and at the weekend. It’s very stressful. There is a ‘workload allocation model’ that allocates 15 minutes to each piece of work. I’ve no idea where that number has come from. It’s completely unrealistic. This semester, I only have a small group, so I can talk about it without having a breakdown.

The National Students’ Survey (NSS) also causes a lot of stress for staff. Every student takes this in their final year and the results heavily influence the University’s overall ranking. But we’re not allowed to tell the students that. There’s a lot of pressure to do ‘nice things’ to improve the university’s score, such as taking students on trips, organising the ball, etc.

Since the increase in tuition fees, I think students tend to see themselves more as customers – like we owe it to them to get a pass. We have to be careful about what we say, particularly about what they’ll do after qualifying. There have been instances of universities being sued by (predominantly law) students who didn’t get into the career they said they were going to.

If you are struggling, there’s not very much support to be honest. You’re very reliant on colleagues helping you out. Or you can obviously go on sick or stress leave. But I had a colleague off recently – when they came back they were told that if they wanted a staged induction to ease back in slowly, they’d have to take that from their annual leave.

 

Rob Teszka: “I could barely get out of bed most days, never mind write a literature review”

I was studying for a PhD in psychology at Goldsmiths University in 2015 when I withdrew. This was for a variety of reasons – the biggest were my mental health and I had become disillusioned with academia. Now, I work as a consultant and speak about how to use research. I'm much more hopeful. 

I had moved from Brunel University in my second year and felt cloistered and very lonely. I wasn’t making any progress and had to manage teaching on top of my research work. While I enjoyed the teaching side, I used it as a bit of an escape from the research and writing up process. Nothing ever seemed like it would be good enough. It was very frustrating.

The initial reaction is always “you should talk about this with your supervisor”. Mine was helpful backing me on the administrative side so I could get on with my research, but essentially I was told to figure it out and get on with the work. He did suggest I start having counselling and eventually I was diagnosed with depression by my GP. Goldsmiths’ student counselling was really helpful and they helped me find a local service so I could continue with therapy after I withdrew.

Before that, I was put on probation. I had to do something within six months. I developed a last-ditch effort list with my supervisor but just ended up avoiding all work. I could barely get out of bed most days, never mind write a literature review. Nothing really worked, and once you’re on probation you can’t withdraw or pause from the programme. I felt so trapped.

It’s stupid to say the least. At the time when you need the most support, there’s even more pressure. There is a culture in academia of “tough it out”. The “dark times” in the second year are openly talked about, even at the interview stage. When dark times are expected, something has gone terribly wrong. There are probably reasons why the system works like this, but how valid they are in the face of mental health issues needs to be looked at seriously.

 

Dr Paul Flaxman: "Seek support sooner rather than later"

I am a Senior Lecturer in Occupational Health Psychology at City University London. We recently conducted a study on academics’ wellbeing, examining the level of anxiety and exhaustion before, during and after the Easter break.

Often, what has the most impact on academics’ mental health is simply having too much to do. There are conflicting demands – the pressure to offer students an excellent and supportive learning experience, publish in the ‘top’ journals, generate income, etc.

If you are struggling, seek support sooner rather than later. Many employees wait until they are extremely distressed before looking for professional sources of support. Even if you feel you are only beginning to struggle, or you seem to have lost some life vitality, it can be worth exploring the available options. In my opinion, reaching out for help is a courageous thing to do.

I would hope that universities are retaining strong in-house occupational health (and other staff support support) services. Here at City, we are closely linked to mental health charity Mind and I have been impressed by the range of services they offer. We should also be thinking about preventive actions, rather than waiting until our energy and wellbeing reserves have become too depleted.

For me, I find it helpful to check emails only while at my computer, not on my phone. I also practice being mindful at regular intervals during the day. I have a tendency to get wrapped up in my own busy mind, so I like to notice when that’s happening and bring my attention back to my more direct experiences.

Despite all the pressures, I still feel incredibly lucky to have an academic job – the privilege of helping students develop, the buzz of working in a learning institution and the opportunities to read and write around research topics that I find inherently interesting. That keeps me going during the tough times.