Mental health, suicide and academia

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This week’s news has been dominated by the sad stories of the suicides of Cardiff lecturer Malcom Anderson and chef Antony Bourdain. As someone who has struggled with complex PTSD which was triggered by overwork around the REF 2013, these hit home. In particular, the ‘suicide is selfish’ brigade who take over social media around these events. As a mother, as a wife, as a friend, as a colleague, how on earth could you contemplate suicide?

When you are in the depths of despair it can feel like a long, slow crawl through a dark, dark tunnel, knowing that even if you get to the end, a slow climb back out into the daylight awaits. You will have to find your way through a gnarled, fog filled wood before even a glimpse of light guides you.

At your side you see a brightly lit door marked exit. That’s the suicide door, the ‘easy’ way out.

You may have crawled through this tunnel many times before and know that if you can just keep going you will eventually reach the light. Or it might be your first time. Either way, the lure of that brightly lit door is strong.

If you take that door the pain stops. Not just the pain to yourself, but the pain you are causing those around you. As a mother, you genuinely believe that you are such a terrible person and mother to your children that they will be better off without you.

Of course this isn’t true. Suicide devastates families, and children who lose a parent to suicide rarely recover fully. I imagine that like the colleagues of Dr Anderson, my own colleagues would be upset by my death, as would my friends. Although my death would not devastate them as it would my children, no doubt they would be shocked and feel guilty, as I have done when friends have taken their lives.

Being an academic doesn’t protect you from the risk of suicide. As clever as we are, no amount of critical analysis, scientific observation or empirical research can protect as from the devastating pain of serious mental health issues. In fact, our skills can often be part of the problem: we can bring up any amount of evidence to corroborate our feelings of worthlessness and guilt when we are deep in despair.

I am grateful that I survived my suicide attempts. Grateful to my husband and children for continuing to love and support me, grateful to my GP and mental health nurses who kept me safe til I was back from the brink, grateful to the psychiatrist, psychologist and counsellors who helped me untangle myself from the clutches of anxiety, depression and PTSD. I am not ‘better’ but I manage to live well with the illness, and manage it with the help of support, medication and mindfulness. Had I not, I would not have seen my PhD students graduate, had the joy of seeing my research help develop policy and practice to improve disabled people’s lives, experienced the elation of winning research grants and seeing my work in print. I also would have missed my daughter’s prize giving, seeing my eldest son start university, my husband’s passing out parade…

All that gets me through suicidal ideation now is the knowledge that it passes, that I just need to keep on keeping on and eventually daylight will return, no matter how hard and painful that is. But Michael Anderson and Anthony Bourdain never got to see the light. They couldn’t see a way out of the despair, the overwork, the guilt, the pain….

We are told to ‘reach out’ when we feel suicidal. But when you feel suicidal, you often can’t reach out. You aren’t seeking attention, although you may be emitting a cry for help. All you want is for the pain to end, and you cannot see how reaching out will end it.

So if you know someone who is suicidal, particularly if they are a colleague, do not assume that their intelligence and academic ability will save them. Ask about suicidal thoughts – asking the question will not prompt them, it might well save someone. I remember the utter feeling of relief when my psychologist asked me if I felt suicidal. Being able to admit it out loud took some of the terror away: now it was a ‘thing’, external to myself, and I could try and find a solution to the ‘thing’.

Listen without judgement. Give reassurance: there is help available, and these feelings will pass with support. Encourage them to seek help, and encourage them to work on self care – if they have been living with mental health issues for a while, they will know what works for them. Talking, exercise, sunshine, mindfulness – these things and more can help with mild depression, can elevate moods and buy some time for people to work their own way back to wellness. For more severe clinical depression antidepressants and therapy do work.

Friends did this for me, and I am forever grateful.

But we should note that the academic workplace in itself can be incredibly toxic for our mental health. We are working longer hours, under greater pressure than ever before: younger and female academics who are at particular risk of precarity of employment are at the highest risk of mental health issues and burnout. Bullying, workplace harassment and the associated risks for mental health are on the rise in academia. Senior management are driven by performance indicators which do not encompass staff wellbeing, and are not effective at supporting their staff.

But a mentally unwell academic is not one who performs well. When I was at my very illest, I couldn’t speak to my family let alone to students. It took months to be able to read and teach again. It’s only now, five years on from my breakdown, that I am finally able to write well, to teach and research. Overwork contributed to five lost years. Failure to support the mental wellbeing of staff is costing the sector millions.

It is not just up to us to individually care for our colleagues. The academic sector needs to put its house in order.

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