As always, this is a personal blog. If you want research on the matter, this is not the place. This is my place to rant and try to be helpful. Welcome.
Mental health and senior faculty: How not to suck in grad school (a post for your future)
Twitter is lousy with comments about how academia is bad for mental health. It seems to be. Here is my perspective, a white male who has had some career success, good luck in life, and is in mid-career; but also has experienced a host of stressors and the onset of mental health issues. The nature of the stressors is serious, but personal. Not a secret, but I will keep these things to myself for purposes of this post. I hope that it is helpful for people to read that no matter how events might appear on the outside, mental health issues can happen to anyone.
Academia as a Cause of MH Issues
I am not sure that academia causes MH problems. I have worked in far more stressful, pathogenic, and competitive environments. Remember that in my last jobs I had to make profit or my unit (with 21 employees) would be eliminated, I was threatened with a gun, cut with a knife, conducted CPR twice, attended 32 child and adolescent funerals, bitten twice, and a host of other challenging stuff I do not want to discuss. I am reasonably well tempered to stress. A paper rejection, senior colleagues with world-class toxic insecurity issues, and general unfairness and pettiness do not phase me much. I have a minor fear of beating colleagues, who abuse or harass students and junior colleagues, to a life-altering pulp, but I am a gentle soul—so that feeling passes quickly. But I get it, the sometimes arbitrary and often actively unfair nature of the work can be dispiriting, maddening, and is a stressor.
Self selection in academia tends to collect a population of people who are conscientious, driven, and often feed on heavy workloads and stress. These traits have much overlap with anxious traits. We probably start out at higher risk for MH problems. To survive graduate school and pursue a tenure-track position or persist in adjunct positions requires a set of characteristics and skills that are far different than most non-academics require and may place us at risk for mental health issues.
Deviation from norm. Academics are unusually smart folks (if you persist in not believing this, then you are clearly sheltered, only hang out with other high intelligence people, and are ignoring over 100 years of solid research). Typically, academics differ from the mean in intelligence, ambition, focus, and many other traits. And academia seems to be one of a handful of endeavors where a lack of social skills does not disqualify a person from achieving at the highest levels. I suspect that the more a person deviates from the mean on any trait, the higher stressors they are required to address (this is why changing and broadening norms and means in academia are valuable goals).
High competition environments that are zero sum tend to lead to isolation, feelings of failure, and distrust of others. Adding to the isolation is the cloistered aspect of academia that creates a feeling that no one understands the rarified work and culture of the profession. The only people who understand are those who are potential competitors. Not much support.
Senior Academic Issues
Bad news. Many of you think that grad student or early career mental health concerns will get better when you graduate, when you get married or have life stability, when you gain a tenure track job, when you save money, when you get tenure, when you win a grant, when you make full professor. Nope. Hate to spoil your life. Mental health problems get worse. Even those of you without mental health issues still can develop problems even if all seems good from the outside.
Worse coping. I always thought that my coping skills would improve as I become older and wiser. Not so much. For me, stressors hit harder emotionally and require more energy to cope. Regulating emotions is no longer an effortless activity, it takes a lot more of energy and work as I age.
Accumulation of issues. Stressors do not come and go, they accumulate. The older you get, the more challenging the barnacles of life become. Stressors stick, they do not slide off, no matter how skilled you may be at coping. Every stressor leaves a heavier and deeper mark as I get older.
Defending the old. The saying that “the first half of the life of an academic is building and creating ideas and the second half is defending those ideas against inevitable change” has some truth. Even if the destructive nature of this thinking is apparent, problems remain. Staying relevant as new ideas surpass and replace the ideas that one has learned, mastered, and has had success with is difficult and consuming. As mental energy is not what it was, the task of continuously growing becomes more challenging.
You will be passed. Every scholar will find that their ideas are surpassed or disproved. That is what should happen. The ideas and mistakes are the foundation on which the next generation builds. It is still a blow to ego when the field has moved on and you are still alive and working. Training and socializing the next generation of scholars and thinkers is the only real way to have long term influence. So support and help those people. Simply leaving as solid a collection of errors and rubble for others to build upon needs to be good enough.
Loss. This is the worst. At some point, you realize that you are attending more funerals than marriages and baptisms. As a side note, this is why academics should attend their students’ graduation ceremonies—a rare positive major event. There is a loss of hair, energy, mental clarity, fitness, and health is no longer taken for granted. People lose their parents, spouses, and friends drift away. It happens to everyone. And the coping with inevitable stressors of life becomes more challenging. Loss accumulates. And each one is more difficult than the last.
None of this is terrible. I am among the fortunate who have had these things arise later in life. Many, if not most people, are forced to face these issues much earlier.
Some Ideas for Preventing or Addressing the Issues
Continuously build social supports. From the age of 28 to 48, I made no new friends. I never thought about it. I met many people I liked very much, but cannot call them good friends. I think men tend to do this. There is work and there is family. Not much energy for anything else. The unfortunate saying that “friends come and go, but enemies accumulate” is quite true for me. These social supports are needed. I have met a truly special person in the last few years that I can safely call my best friend. I have been open to developing other close friendships. I appreciate how important these people are. I wish I had invested more energy into keeping old friends close and being open to new friends when I was younger. It makes a difference. I am lucky to have learned this later, rather than never.
Get help sooner rather than later. Being very sad or extremely anxious happens to most people occasionally. Despite the discomfort, most often these issues will pass or are effectively coped with. When these issues affect family life, work life, or any other aspect of functioning; then immediately seek support. Perhaps the supports are informal at first. But don’t wait. Do not believe that you have always handled stress well and the present feelings are no different. Avoid common maladaptive coping skills—working more hours, drugs/alcohol, risky behaviours, and so on. When functioning is affected seek formal support, if needed, rather than assuming this too will pass.
Keep pursuing the new. Becoming stagnant is becoming old, both physically and mentally. I am fortunate to have returned to judo training and regular gym work over the last 5 years. I am tackling a brand-new research program, I have come to learn the promise of ideas that I once dismissed, and trying to keep thoughts fresh and continuously improve. This is hard work. But it is renewing work and I value it.
This is not a pity situation. I remain among the luckiest of people. Few people have the quality of supports, privilege, and stability that I possess. The point is that there is no finish line. There is no time at which all your problems will disappear, and everything will be perfect. Every stage, even the most stable and successful bring challenges. And those issues are inevitable. Graduate students and early career researchers can continue to build supports and relationships that will prepare them for hard times now and in the future. Mental health issues for senior academics are common and only slightly different than the issues affecting more junior colleagues. Managing these issues well is a wonderful opportunity to grow and re-invent oneself and avoid the stagnant life that will certainly lead to a permanent decline. This is an opportunity and a challenge.