The Mad Professor

Virginia Woolf

I am often told I am ‘brave’ to be open about my mental health issues and working in a job where your mind is your product, this may be so, but I don’t think so. Living with a mental health condition – particularly when it is serious and life threatening as mine is – is the real act of bravery. Talking about it – just as being honest, as a feminist, about the rampant sexism in academia – is to me just activism on another front.

Four years ago my mind exploded, partly due to overwork, and latent complex PTSD – which I had successfully avoid since a minor breakdown in my twenties – became a feature of my life. I am in recovery – which means generally I manage to live well with the illness – but occasionally I have relapses, and I am in the midst of  work-related one now.

So it is slightly disheartening to read a report showing that over a decade after alerts about the need to structurally reform academia to protect the mental health of academics and students, that nearly half of academics are showing signs of mental health problems. I thought the humorous tag of ‘Mad Professor’ was mine, but the experience of serious mental health issues is shared by nearly a third of my colleagues.

And let me make this clear: I am not talking about work-related stress, although that is an increasingly common feature of academic life. I am talking about being unable to breathe, to think, to feel the walls closing in, experiencing terrifying hallucinations, voices, an overwhelming desire to self harm, harm others or kill yourself, because that is the only way the relentless terrifying pain will stop. Like being trapped in a horror movies only it’s real and there is no way out of danger that faces you.

In my case these feelings can go on for days, weeks or months. Then, with the help of medication, self-help and talking therapies, I gradually start digging myself out of the tunnel. Occassionally the brightly lit door marked ‘exit’ (ie suicide) appears and is tempting, particularly as I know once I am out of the tunnel it won’t be sunny and light, it will be to a dense dark mist-filled forest through which I have to navigate with no map, just carrying on until at some point the sunshine starts to break through and I can breathe normally again.

And as this recent episode was work-related, all I could do was wonder, why on EARTH would anyone want to put anyone else through that? Particularly someone who, when well, is good at their job, does all the things she is supposed to do and well, brings in research money, teaches, supervises PhD students, writes some (if I say so myself) pretty  good stuff.

I don’t for a moment think that individuals, even senior management, in academia are actively trying to send their colleagues mad. But I do think we have become as a sector overly managed, overly concerned about REF and TEF and league tables and publish-or-perish, and senior managers are expected to run universities as businesses.

We may well, in our current neo-liberal days, have to accept the marketization of the academy. In any case I am not convinced that is worse than the times when it was an elite ivory tower only open to a narrow network of white middle class public school boys and girls. But when I started, at the tail end of that era, it was enough to be bright, brave, good at what you did, curious, good at critical analysis and inspiring students to learn to think for themselves.

Nowadays early career researchers face job insecurity unparalleled in any similar field, mid-level academics face pressure from students and managers to teach, research, and carry unmanageable workloads as a matter of course, and professors face the choice of giving in to bullying senior management, or seeing their careers and research underfunded and undervalued.

I have many friends who found academia intolerable and left – bright, inspiring women who feared for their mental health and their families. As I have zero non-academic skills and a large mortgage to pay as the primary breadwinner this is not really an option for me. Besides, when it is not sending me mad, I actually love my job: I am still inspired by my research, I still enjoy writing and teaching, I love mentoring and supervising early career researchers and seeing where they take their skills and enthusiasm and how it in turn benefits society.

In response to the growing mental health crisis that led to Malcolm Anderson’s suicide at Cardiff University, the sector is responding by calling for better mental health provision and support for students and staff, with the UK universities minister calling for Vice Chancellors to show leadership. This either rather spectacularly misses the point, or places the responsibility where it should lie, depending on your point of view. Whilst it is beyond an individual’s scope to change the issues in academia that threaten our mental health, it is Vice Chancellors who have the responsibility to set the tone and behaviour of their institution. Bullying, stress, unmanageable workloads, the individualisation and blame culture, marketization, job insecurity have all led to toxic workplace environments where neither students nor staff can flourish. This can be undone and we can resist, but only if our strategic leaders are committed to challenging established structures and norms: those very structures that put them in power in the first place.

However, just as the Athena Swan kitemark can enable institutions to undertake tackling gender inequality in a tickbox way without substantially changing the structures, I suspect that the fact that mental health issues in academia impact most seriously on women and early career researchers (particularly in the natural sciences) will preclude much progress. By definition, those in senior management in academia are either resilient to the toxic mix, collude through silence, or actively perpetrate it – or they would not be in positions of power. There are notable exceptions, but most senior managers in academia do not actively challenge unmanageable workloads, stress, job insecurity, sexism, bullying and other issues which contribute to mental health issues.

Pressure to create a kitemark system for Universities to demonstrate student mental health support is, I would argue, going to make it worse, not better. Although investment in counselling may well be overdue, the emotional burden of caring for students is going to be taken up disproportionately by younger and female academics, the very group whose own mental health is at greatest risk.

If we removed the systematic endemic structural issues that have lead to this mental health crisis in the first place, both the students and staff would be at lower risk of problems, would be better supported when problems arose, and we’d all be able to get back to our research, teaching and taking care of our students. Which is what we all joint the academic to do in the first place.

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