Mental Health in Academia: How Departments Can Support Faculty, Staff, and Students

by | Apr 30, 2019

In March 2019, Science magazine published an article about how mindfulness can help PhD students handle mental health struggles. This sparked a Twitter debate about why universities are more interested in treating symptoms than changing structures that exacerbate such struggles. Mental health in academia is particularly important: while the World Health Organization estimates that mental disorders affect one in four individuals globally, research has found that graduate students experience anxiety and depression at rates more than six times that of the general population. So if mindfulness and individual behaviors are not the answer, how can academic departments actually support the mental health of their faculty, staff, and students?

Many students, faculty, and staff living with mental health in academia issues find those issues challenging to articulate. Many symptoms and illnesses make professional situations and circumstances more challenging. I should know, I’ve lived with mental illness my whole life. It got worse in my first year of undergrad and climaxed a decade later in the third year of my PhD. Although my studies and research did not cause my mental illness, there are several things that academic departments could have done to make academia much more accessible to me and others.

Address mental health directly in welcome programs

Many universities have departmental-specific or college-specific welcome programs that introduce students, faculty, and staff to the departmental structure, code of conduct, etc.

If you are in charge of organizing this (or can find the person who is), consider including an ice-breaking seminar focused solely on wellbeing and mental health in academia broadly and your institution in particular.

This could include information on who to go to for help, tips from current and past students on how to cope, and departmental and university representatives who explain their policies on mental health support.

Remind your department that weekends are for rest

Early in my research career, I received a faculty-wide newsletter in which one of our faculty leaders praised some researchers who had recently won a prize. This leader noted that the researchers performed so well because they went “above and beyond” what was expected of them. Members of the departmental equality forum raised the valid point with the leader that their words praised the toxic habit of overworking, rather than just simply lauding an achievement.

Instead of publicly praising overwork, departments need to actively remind faculty, students, and staff that we all need rest and we all deserve our weekends for this. Too many students and faculty in particular are spending their weekends doing unpaid labor to the detriment of their mental health, worrying that they will be viewed as lazy if they don’t.

Define and clearly state departmental policies on workload and working hours

If your department does not already have a workload and working hours policy, consider creating one. If it already has one, make sure all faculty, staff, and students know it and actually follow it. One thing to look out for is covert bullying into overworking. It is unfortunately very easy to follow policy whilst passing the subliminal message to colleagues and students that they are expected to put in work beyond working hours. For those who may already be struggling to assert themselves, this makes it even harder to communicate that their workload needs readjusting.

I also recommend that departments consider explicitly stating that mental health days can be counted in sick leave (this may require university approval, so check with your institution). Individuals don’t need to state that their sick day is for mental health reasons, but knowing that their department values their mental health as much as their physical health can be a positive move in making people feel seen.

Consider appointing a department point person

Consider creating a department point person. This manager should be trained in mental health first aid and dedicated to identifying those within the department who may need mental health support. The manager may even be an individual with a background specifically in psychology. The role of the manager would also include keeping up-to-date with faculty, students, and staff on any other arising issues.

In some departments, this role currently falls to a postgraduate tutor or generic doctoral student tutor who is unpaid. Often, those in these roles are researchers and/or teachers themselves so may not physically be able to invest as much time as they would want to. Having a dedicated point person can help handle such duties as:

Bereavement and extenuating circumstances

When I started my PhD, I never imagined that my primary supervisor and my father would pass away within three months of each other. Trying to figure out what to do, logistics-wise, added to my burden. While there was policy in place, I do wish it was smoother.

It is necessary for all departments to have an action plan for extenuating and/or bereavement circumstances. Further, having a designated individual who, unprompted, can come to the aid of a student, faculty member, or staff member who needs this help would be enormously helpful.

Professional developmental plan

A 2010 study from the Royal Society in the UK revealed that only 3.5 percent of science PhDs obtain a permanent role in the academy. Preparing graduate students for what comes next by offering training in transferrable skills is the responsibility of ALL academic departments.

Worrying about career trajectory is a massive stressor. When departments have rigid expectations that all students will obtain a tenure-track faculty career, they set such students (and departments) up for disappointment. Part of producing well-rounded graduates is ensuring they are supported in the present and armed with transferrable skills and information to make decisions for their future.

Departmental workshops/seminars on wellbeing

An atmosphere of teamwork can bring a sense of comfort to students, staff, and faculty struggling with their mental health. Having dedicated time and space to discuss mental health and general wellbeing in a non-judgmental gathering can also foster community and proactive allyship.

These workshops could take the form of presentations by mental health advocates, journal clubs focused on the latest research into mental health, discussions about mental health breaking news, and meetings on improving mental health departmental policy.

Make sure advisors are prioritizing their advisee’s mental health (and their own)

Many faculty are excellent advisors and already prioritize their advisees’ and mentees’ whole selves. However, often they have not been prepared to supervise. All supervisors should be taught how to supervise, and assessed on this intermittently. In every university I’ve been part of, there has always been at least one professor who everyone complains about but who keeps getting funding and being allocated graduate students. Without fail, these students suffer. As much as students need to make an effort to produce good-quality research, supervisors and advisers also need to make an effort to evolve their mentorship strategy to take into account students’ wellbeing.

When students, faculty, and staff enter a department, that department has a duty of care. This should surpass only providing support when it’s needed and instead be proactive in identifying and providing solutions. This approach ensures that from welcome through to actual work times, folks know there is a point person on their side with the sole responsibility of looking out for their welfare.

Neither graduate school nor employment should be traumatic but rather a platform for learning, teaching, research, and personal development, and it is in the power of each institution to create a safe and healthy work environment.

Furaha Asani wearing a grey sweater and black shirt

About the author:

Furaha Asani is a researcher in the field of respiratory immunology, a teacher, a mental health advocate, and a writer. She loves fresh flowers, colourful bags, and bold lipstick. You can find her on Twitter at @DrFuraha_Asani.

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