Normalising Mental Health Issues in Academia | Jackie Zavala
Updated: Aug 11
I recently attended a mental health first aid course and it is unfortunate that I did not take this course in my first year. When we went around the room it became obvious that, across all departments, postgraduate students have normalized mental health problems. It became especially apparent that PhD students in particular struggled with feeling that mental health problems like anxiety and depression are part of the process.
“A PhD is meant to be hard” and “If you are not struggling then you are not doing it right”
These ways of thinking help to normalise the elephant in the room, or in this case, the black dog in the office.
We have all felt a lack of motivation, and tired at some point. We have potentially slept too little or too much, and possibly felt a loss of appetite. These seem normal, and in some cases it is not a reoccurring and short-term issue. However, these are also some of the signs that our mental health may not be perfect. We need to learn to spot these sorts of symptoms in ourselves and each other so that we can address these issues and put systems in place so we can better deal with these symptoms before it escalates to something more serious. In this way, mental health is similar to your physical health. When you have a cold you have similar, although not as intense, symptoms for more severe illnesses. Even if you may not have pneumonia you still try to take care of your cold early so that you can recover faster and so that it doesn’t develop into something worse.
If we are willing to take a day off for our physical health, why would we also not take a day off to address our mental health?
There are numerous blogs, articles and studies about mental health in academia. This is an issue that has been prevalent for years and is found across various fields. In a recent publication in Nature, Evans et al. (2018) found that there was a prevalence of depression and anxiety among the graduate students. Graduate students who participated in this study were shown to be six times as likely to experience these mental health problems when compared to the general population. Again, this is only one of the many articles that highlight the issue of mental health among academics. A quick Google search will show the various ways that other academics have tried to bring attention to the problem of normalised mental health issues.
I have struggled with my mental health and over all well-being throughout my PhD so far. I have been lucky to have set up coping mechanisms that are effective, and have had support from my supervisors and University. This is unfortunately not always the case. As graduate students, I feel that it is necessary that we are educated on mental health issues so that our experiences are positive and productive, and so that we can help other graduate students. I remember the instructor of our mental health first aid course not believing how those of us in the room were laughing and joking about the prevalence of mental health issues among graduate studies and telling us that it was, “not right.” It took her shocked expression and honest words to really understand the extent to which we as graduate students have accepted our poor mental health as just another part of our graduate studies.
I hope this blog brings more awareness and urges others to learn more about mental health. Our mental health is just as important to finishing our studies as our physical health. If you are struggling with mental health issues, you are not alone.
Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature biotechnology, 36(3), 282.