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Being Well in Academia: Self-care for stressed academics

Posted on: October 9, 2020

Written by Petra Boynton, author of Being Well in Academia

It’s World Mental Health Day! Universities across the world will be sharing uplifting messages, inspirational memes and details of their WMHD activities – mostly online this year.

There’s no doubt students and staff need mental health support, but in contrast to the peppy photos and uplifting quotes, many working or studying in universities are in crisis because of the way colleges are either causing or worsening mental health problems.

Did you hear about the academic who was asked to cancel his holiday because it coincided with a mindfulness training session at work? Or the department that sent breezy resilience tips to all staff during lockdown while requiring them to be on video at 8am each morning to check they were working. Or the universities expecting staff to field phone calls from angry parents, anxious about their adult children being quarantined.

You might have heard of cases like these, or many others like them. While universities are overshadowed by the pandemic, and in many cases in crisis mode due to poor management and lack of appropriate planning; pre-existing issues of racism, precarity, ableism, sexism, bullying, LGBTQ-phobia, celebrating overwork and competition, and classism haven’t been addressed.

Does this mean we shouldn’t bother about mental health? No! I believe passionately that we need to have as much information available to help ourselves, particularly if we don’t have institutional support. The challenge, then, is how to make such information available in a format that is acceptable to diverse academic audiences.

I always begin with self-care. And by that I don’t mean the kind of self-care that’s based on trite sentiments, having access to a private chef, or displacing anxieties with alcohol or shopping.  I mean beginning with you because it may be you’re the only person currently in place to help. If you commit to care for yourself as well as you would a good friend, you can begin to identify who is in your support network. What friends or family members can you call on (even if you can’t currently see them in person?). Are there colleagues or professional networks and unions you might join? Where can you build support, to be stronger together?

Can you think about ways where you might intervene if you see something wrong – be that exploitation, abuse or unfair treatment of others? Have you someone to turn to if you are at risk yourself? If someone you are teaching, mentoring or managing is struggling, would you know how to recognise the signs they may need assistance and know what to say – and could you accept help if it were offered? Too often we suspect something is wrong, but we doubt ourselves. We don’t know what we might be entitled to or who would be the person to request it within our universities. While in some cases help is limited or absent, often it is there but isn’t accessed because people aren’t told of its existence, informed they qualify for assistance, or are empowered to request aid.

If we’re struggling, we can find ways to calm, inspire and energise; but when you’re exhausted and stressed locating ideas for self-care can seem overwhelming and what’s on offer may not suit your needs or circumstances. It’s not unusual to fall into unhealthy or damaging habits which we know aren’t helping us but we’ve no idea how to stop. Shame and stigma may also prevent us asking for help.

Having spent decades in universities first as an undergrad, then a self-funding part time PhD (during which time I was chronically unwell), then working in universities up to Senior Lecturer level before becoming a consultant advising universities on student and staff safety and wellbeing I have been trying to provide practical solutions to all the above situations, ensuring a particularly critical audience is well served with useful information that doesn’t sugar-coat the problems in academia nor disempower those already in need of care. It’s why, rather than focusing on a ‘Mental Health Day’ I’d prefer mental health to be prioritised within universities all year round, and with structural changes to address the inequalities and harmful practices that cause mental distress in the first place.

About the author:

Petra Boynton is a social psychologist and Agony Aunt who teaches and researches in International Healthcare. She specialises in addressing the safety and wellbeing of students and staff in academic settings.