Or: Just because you haven't seen a wombat, doesn't mean they don't exist...
This post today is based on a presentation I gave at my workplace recently. I think “sprung on my workmates” is perhaps a more accurate description, given that I was meant to be giving a more academic research type of talk. I felt that this talk was a bit more needed, and that this conversation had to be started. As a result, some parts of this are very Belgium-oriented, although the topics I’ll be covering are universal. As a short disclaimer (and as you’ll know from my author blurb!) I’m nowhere near a professional in this area. I don’t have any formal education in psychology and this is not that kind of post. Think of this more as a conversation-starter, both a springboard for and pool of ideas and information that I’ve gathered over time.
To start with, let’s look at some physical problems that could affect your efficiency in a working environment:
You can see things like a sore back, broken leg, the common cold, all of which present in their neat little boxes and really are a hindrance (ever tried holding that sneeze in mid-pipette?). Naturally, no one would expect you to rock up to your research with crutches and a cast on your leg.
Now let’s look at some mental health issues:
What do you mean? Of course it’s not empty! There’s anxiety, brazenly sitting in the middle. Depression is hovering over there up top and dysmorphia is curled up quietly in the corner. I think you’re starting to see the problem: these are invisible. Having said that, just because we can’t see them, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t there, nor that they can’t impede your efficiency in the same way as the previous box we saw.
Let’s look at some statistics. The University and College Union (UCU) is a UK-based organisation that is representative of over 100,000 people working in academia in varied positions (academic and administrative). A survey carried out by the UCU on over 2,000 of their members found that almost 90% classed their job as stressful, with 2/3 indicating the regularity of a level of stress they deemed unacceptable. In a survey carried out by The Guardian on over 2,500 people working in academia, about 2/3 again reported never having disclosed mental health problems to colleagues or managers, something that will be touched on later in this post. And finally, we look to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The OECD is comprised of 36 member countries across the globe, of which Belgium is one. In 2015, after surveys across the member countries, it was found that 1 in 5 Belgians over the age of 24 suffer from chronic mental health issues.
Think of that number for a moment. Actually, think of that number (or whatever the number is relevant to your location) when you are next in a meeting or a lab with colleagues. Count the number of people in your workplace and put that together with the statistic to give you a more “real” idea of what 1 in 5 people means. A couple of years prior, in 2013, a report from the OECD showed Belgium as having the 5th highest suicide rate of all the member countries.
One thought that might be popping into your head is, “But why is this relevant to me? I don’t have chronic mental health issues”. This adds yet another layer of invisibility in two ways. Firstly, it creates a protective bubble around you which prevents you from seeing or understanding that might not be the case for others. Secondly, it can be damaging to yourself because you then ignore things you may consider “smaller scale” symptoms that are symptomatic of a larger problem. Things like:
- Constant fatigue/lack of motivation to do anything
- Anger management problems
- Imposter syndrome (to which I could dedicate several posts to on its own)
- Panic attacks
- Skipping meals
The list of these seemingly common symptoms goes on, with so many seeing them as just occasional enough to ignore, or worse: expected.
Mental health in academia is a major problem because of this vicious cycle: We start with invisibility. You get into a workplace where you can’t see other people with mental health issues. This causes having mental health issues to become normalised. Eventually it’s even laughed at, with the age-old joke of “oh you’re doing a PhD? You’re in for a rough time” coming to mind. This in turns adds to the stigma of having mental health issues so that no one is willing to come forward with them, feeding back into the issue of invisibility.
We’re at a point where mental health issues are more prevalent than ever with the current state of the world in general and the world of academia, but nobody is talking about it because of the stigma and shame associated with it. Having problems with your mental health is not shameful, it doesn’t make you unfit for employment and it doesn’t make you someone for whom people have to walk around on eggshells all the time. It makes you human, and as humans we are susceptible to our surroundings and how they affect the way our brains work. And it isn’t just academics and PhD student. For the next managerial level up, it can become just as stressful, especially as we’ve moved away from a culture that embraces cooperative decision-making, and towards a non-participative model of management, removing any sense of autonomy.
So what can we do? I like to separate this part into three levels:
Talk to someone about it. Generally you don’t need someone to hear you, you need someone willing to listen. Be mindful though of whether they’re able to do that for you though.
Try personal coping mechanisms. If you’re feeling anxious, take some deep breaths and physically list everything around you. Actually write it down. Drink a cup of hot tea/coffee and notice every sip and accompanying smell. If you’re starting to feel sad, hopeless and tired, stop what you’re doing, move away from the situation/desk/lab bench and take a walk outside. Having a “Mental Health First Aid Kit” with some of your favourite things in there is useful to have both at home and at work.
Consider taking a self care day. Just a day where you stay in bed, and do nothing but watch wonderful movies and eat whatever your favourite treat is. For some, this is difficult because of deadlines, but understand that mental health is an economy of emotional energy. Every time you push through a day, you’re taking out a loan from the future and at some point that’s going to send you bankrupt. Being slightly late or requesting a day extension on a deadline is better than missing one entirely further down the track when serious issues come up.
Get professional help. This is not something to be ashamed of. When we have a sprain we rest that area. When we fracture a rib we see a doctor. Having mental health issues is just as debilitating and probable more common considering the statistics we saw earlier. There are a few websites that can help you in Belgium:
depressiehulp.be (work in progress)
psygroup.be (psychologist information)
Another option is to talk to your workplace GP if that’s a thing you have available to you. At first it may seem scary, but remember that they’re exactly there for that reason and can either help you or recommend the right people to help you get through your problems. And they are also bound by doctor-patient confidentiality so unless you request it, your workplace won’t know about it if that’s a thing you’re afraid of.
So to anyone who is having mental health issues, whether they’re chronic or situational: you are definitely not alone, and you have nothing to be ashamed of. Invisibility is not ok, and while I haven’t necessarily said anything new in this post, I have hopefully started a conversation that will continue on until we remove that invisibility cloak once and for all.