Academia’s Culture of Silence (2 Comments)

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Originally posted at Hippo Reads.

Heaving ourselves out of bed each morning is a trying feat for most of us. But what happens when the initial movements — peeling back the covers, lifting yourself upright, spinning your legs over the side of the bed — become too overwhelming to perform? Greg* experienced this for three months in the middle of his graduate school program. Getting help or talking to his advisor “didn’t seem like an option, though,” said Greg — “I felt like a failure and couldn’t imagine anyone else seeing anything different.”

Anxiety and depression plague graduate students like locusts to a crop: 28% to 64% of graduate students are depressed, depending on discipline, compared to 7% for the general U.S. population. Emory University considers graduate and professional students to be a “high-risk group for mental health problems.” University of California schools are grappling with swelling counseling needs by students.

As I’m writing this, the story feels tired and cliché. I’ve read about, discussed, and experienced this plight in academia for years. But it’s a story that must be brought to the front of the classroom, rather than furtively passed around as notes between students beyond the oblivious gaze of their teacher.

Anxiety and depression in academia

There are countless rantings about the increasingly tenuous availability of funding, and therefore jobs, for academic researchers. This environment is partially at fault for fostering a competitive culture, where publishing your research is what nabbing and keeping your job is all about.

I’m not concerned with adding to this chorus, as I feel we’re already well aware of how these problems (among others) can add to the anxiety and depression felt by many students and faculty.

I’m also not suggesting that stress and depression could be eradicated from academia, or that graduate students should be coddled to avoid burnout or feelings of insecurity. These feelings are a normal part of being a human being, and as such we should learn how to cope with them.

Instead, I’m interested in the kind of anxiety and depression that means a person can’t get out of bed, perform at work, and interact with colleagues. The kind that forces students to quit PhD programs because they feel that is the only option. The kind that is accepted as a standard part of the graduate school experience. The kind that unnecessarily thins the pool of brilliant scientists, engineers, and philosophers, leaving those that suffer from mental health issues on the sidelines as wistful spectators rather than active participants in efforts to improve human health, understand ecosystems, write operas, or make space travel possible.

Disregarding academic stress

Allison,* a graduate student, found herself avoiding meetings and conversations, she explained, “because the idea of opening my mouth … would give me tunnel vision … I was so out of my mind with panic that it took all of my energy and concentration to keep from running out of the room screaming.”

Certain professions demand a healthy fight-or-flight response. But should extreme responses, such as Allison’s, be a common part of an academic’s life?

I spent some time thinking about how academia is similar to and different from other high-stress jobs. Maybe we aren’t special in any way, and it makes sense for each rung up the ladder toward tenured faculty-dom to iteratively weed out those bleeding heart, thin-skinned researchers who can’t handle the publish-or-die world.

But in the U.S., our college campuses and classrooms aren’t a battlefield in a war-torn country. These are laboratories and offices; classrooms and lecture halls. Our interactions aren’t with criminals pointing guns at our hearts, protected by bulletproof vests. We ask questions, discuss ideas, and seek answers. We aren’t confronted with human suffering on hospital beds or in court houses. We’re holding pipettes and teaching students; staring into laptop screens and exploring rainforests.

Why should we suffer from persistent anxiety and depression that goes ignored, untreated, and stigmatized?

Silence and stoicism

Most graduate students I know are either currently seeing counselors, taking medication to treat anxiety or depression, or have talked about wanting to get help. I suspect more suffer from mental health issues who avoid discussing these problems at all. If getting through graduate training is so stressful, then faculty members have been through this, or are currently going through this; but they don’t talk about it. (But see Dr. David Smith’s and Dr. Meghan Duffy’s honest pieces about mental health issues in academia).

Graduate students place faculty — these seemingly inviolable, mysterious people — on a pedestal, while assuming they, as the trainees, have to attain these same characteristics to be successful scientists.

So what happens when graduate students have panic attacks? Or can’t get out of bed? Or lose their ability to write, look at a computer screen, or present research to colleagues? Imposter syndrome — extreme feelings of ineptitude — only serves to bloat these disabling problems. Graduate students assume they aren’t cut out for academia, pack their bags, and look elsewhere for work.

These stories are widespread, and almost every time we hear them, we shrug our shoulders and accept that some people just aren’t cut out for the job.

Recently I’ve attempted to gauge who might relate to my experiences with anxiety and depression. I began inserting hints of my problems into casual conversation with other graduate students, whose eyes would light up, leading to a story about their recent bout with depression or anxiety.

Allison has also been vocal about her unrelenting anxiety with her peers. She tends to mask the distress with light-hearted jokes; but, she says, “I think [joking about it] probably undersells how intensely painful my struggle with anxiety has actually been.”

It seems as though graduate students are champing at the bit to talk about these issues, without knowing what venue to use or whom to trust.

Poor mental health and leaving academia

Part of the reason why people with mental health issues leave academia is that the symptoms of their struggles work to counter the heart of what they’re trying to do. Once they begin to feel a “loss of interest, helplessness, difficulty concentrating and remembering details,” suddenly reading papers, taking classes, writing manuscripts, and developing research projects becomes prohibitively difficult.

Another problem is that the victims assume their struggles are special, embarrassing, and a sign of weakness. This lack of communication among academics about mental health means that we feel isolated in our tribulations, which feeds back into and inflates the magnitude of our internal crises. The only resolution appears to be, to the victim, to leave the program.

Weeding out brilliant, creative people who are passionate about science, but aren’t equipped to tolerate the academic lifestyle without aid, only serves to slow the progress of arts, sciences, and professional fields. This unintentional survival of the “fittest” over time leaves us with the fraction at the top who are blessed with emotional resilience — a characteristic that while useful, is mutually exclusive from being able to do great research.

I don’t have a solution to metamorphose the bedrock of stress underlying the academic landscape. However, we can open conversation about the ubiquity of mental health problems in academia to de-stigmatize people and plug victims into support networks. Ideally these resources actually exist at the academic institution, and students are guided to the resources — this isn’t necessarily true, which is a whole other issue for a different article.

I have a vision of what a future version of academia might look like: where a department is full of researchers who are equal parts skilled and compassionate; where advisors are trained to respond to both academic and personal crises of students appropriately; where hitting an emotional breaking point is not the end of your career, but rather a temporary hiatus in your schedule; where colleagues feel comfortable discussing what they learned in their therapy sessions; where researchers are simply people, fallible as any other, and not afraid to ask for help.

*Names changed for confidentiality of interviewees

June 21, 2016

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  • Thank you for writing this great piece. I have found that, at least in my circles, graduate students are fairly open about their mental health issues. The issue then what to do about them. At the places I have been it has really seemed to be a matter of the right people (admins) acknowledging the problem and having the right (and enough) resources. These may require a some degree of cultural shift in academia.

  • Thanks for your thoughts, Kylla! I agree that mentors and staff should be better trained about how to guide students to resources for mental health issues.

    I’m glad the students in your circle feel comfortable talking about these issues; in general, I’ve had the same experience with my peers.

    I think students tend to feel isolated from faculty when it comes to mental health. We assume they haven’t been through it, too (or that they don’t go through it anymore). Maybe if faculty were more open about their former/current experiences, grad students would realize that what they’re going through isn’t some kind of indication that they shouldn’t pursue academia (or another competitive field). And this would also require a cultural shift!

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