Mental Health in Academia

The academic life is a never-ending stream of new challenges that can trigger or exacerbate anxiety and depression. We’ve talked about some of those stresses here at TSW, from dealing with toxic mentors, to the job hunt (which could trigger Job Market PTSD), to the timing of starting a family, to feeling like you are falling behind even once you have your dream job. Mental health issues seem to be rising in academia and can seriously affect academics’ productivity and success – an insidious negative feedback loop.

The only way to break a ‘hidden epidemic’ out into the open is to talk about our experiences and acknowledge the pervasiveness of the problem. We are starting to talk more openly about mental illness in academia – even if there is a culture of acceptance around those issues. I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or any other kind of doctor trained in diagnosing or treating mental health issues, but I can talk about my experiences as a way to continue the conversation.

When I moved across the country to attend a Ph.D. program, one year of out college, I was faced with something I wasn’t prepared for – suddenly being the small fish in a big pond, after 20+ years of being at the top of the class. I was hit with a major case of imposter syndrome at the same time I was dealing with some major life stressors, including being on my own in a new time zone and losing my first family member (a grandparent). This threw me into a severe case of anxiety-induced insomnia with a little depression mixed in (I was eventually diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder). I was sleeping less than 4 hours a night and lost a lot of weight because I couldn’t eat. That was the first of three times I’ve had to battle mental health issues (the others were when I had a toxic mentor during a postdoc, and when I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder the same semester as defending my dissertation). I count myself lucky because GAD is relatively minor in the grand scheme of mental health issues. However it still affected my happiness and productivity, requiring work and self-reflection to tamp down to a manageable level.

I find it hard to believe that the unique stresses of pursuing a career in academia didn’t contribute to the timing of my diagnoses with GAD – particularly in graduate school, where at least half of my cohort was also in treatment at one time for panic attacks, generalized anxiety, stress-induced migraines, or depression. The frequency of those mental health issues was a lot lower amongst my friends on more traditional career tracks (although it’s possible that academics are just better at asking for treatment, and can take advantage of often excellent mental health resources on campuses). In graduate school, and academia in general, it can often feel like you are never working hard enough, no matter how much time or effort you are putting into your job. Even if we aren’t actually working 80 hours a week, the sometimes difficult to reach and often poorly defined goals for ‘success’ in academia can contribute to mental health issues.

Talking about mental health issues

When I was first diagnosed with anxiety in graduate school I was both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised by the response I got from peers, mentors, and family when I discussed mental health issues and my treatment. The worst reaction was from a family member who said that I should be able to just fight through it, since therapy and drugs are for the weak-willed. That was hard to hear, but it was much more common to hear the opposite – compassion (I’m so glad you are getting help), interest (what is therapy like, would it help me?), and most commonly, receiving other people’s stories in return. Many times it seemed people wanted to talk about these pervasive issues, either because they had faced them or had loved ones who had. Overall, talking about my mental health issues made me feel much less alone, which I think helped me get past the hard times more quickly.

As I’ve gotten further along in my career I have become more open about discussing mental health in academia, and I hope that I have created a safe space for students to talk to me about their issues. Talk to your friends, family, and mentors, and ask for their help, but at the same time don’t think that they can be a substitute for professional help and/or medication. I’ve been on the other side of the equation – being the confidant of someone with mental health issues – and I felt powerless that they wouldn’t get professional help when they obviously needed it. I felt like I had their health and happiness in my hands, which was a scary place to be.

Asking for, and accepting, professional help

It can be hard to admit you need to seek outside/professional help, like you are admitting that you aren’t as strong as you thought you were, or that a chronic mental health issue isn’t as under control as you thought it was. But if small (or large) lifestyle changes haven’t made a dent in your mental health then it might be time to talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Therapy, medication, or both can be very helpful in treating and managing mental health issues, and most academic insurances have decent coverage for them.

Once you have decided to ask for professional help, keep in mind that no therapist or medication is one-size-fits-all. Just because one particular therapist or medication works for someone else, doesn’t mean that it’s going to work for you. The best therapist I’ve ever had was recommended to me by a friend who didn’t like her at all, but thought her style might work well with me. Additionally, the most helpful medication or therapist in one crisis or time of your life might not work another time. Our body’s chemistry changes over time, which can affect how medications affect us.

What this all means is that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. This goes for both therapists and medication. It can take trying multiple different treatment options before you find the one that works for you. Try not to get discouraged. It’s all too common for those of us already unsure about professional help to give it a halfhearted try and give up before it really has a chance.

Day-to-day ways to reduce stress and improve mood

For relatively minor mental health issues, such as low-level background anxiety, a bit of the blues, or increasingly recurring headaches, a few lifestyle changes that can keep your issues from becoming exacerbated.

  • Exercise: as much as it pains me to admit it, exercise is great for reducing anxiety and stress, and can act as an antidepressent.
  • Take some time off: When problems seem insurmountable a mental health day can help bring you back in balance. More generally, however, making sure you don’t work every day of the week can recharge your mind and body. I find that I am much happier and less stressed if I work 6 longer days than 7 shorter days. As a mentor, you can encourage your students – or even assign them- to take some time off and not work every day. Similarly, be a good role model by NOT working every day at the office, which allows your mentees the space to take some mental health time.
  • Make time for hobbies: Get a massage, meditate, knit, read a book – whatever activities make you happy and/or relaxed. One of the best things for my mental health was getting a pet. Pets provide social support and buffer owners from stressful events.
  • Check in with your loved ones. One of the first things to slip through the cracks when I feel overwhelmed are those weekly phone calls with family and friends. Then suddenly I feel really disconnected from everyone and everything, which can make me feel worse. A good way to stay connected and feel less alone, even when busy or in a new place, is to be active on social media – particularly platforms like Twitter, where someone is always online.

These are just a few things that I find make a difference when I feel my stress level ramping up. Unfortunately, now that I’m an assistant professor, I have less time for them than I used to, and I’m still trying to find the right balance.

How does the lifestyle of an academic threaten your mental health? What do you do to stay mentally healthy as an academic?


28 thoughts on “Mental Health in Academia

  1. I think it’s also important to recognize that there are people in academia struggling with mental illnesses that aren’t GAD or depression. Borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc. are much more stigmatized in our society and may not be met with the same kinds of compassion and understanding as the more common ones when you are open about them. I have heard faculty members in my department discuss (in front of me) their “problem” field technicians or students – the ones with “unchecked mental illness.” These more stigmatized disorders are still very unsafe for people in academia to discuss freely without it affecting their success.

  2. Great post! I wanted to second that asking for professional help can be really useful. I saw a therapist in grad school and during my postdoc for anxiety and depression, and it changed my life. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. I saw two totally different therapists — the first was more of a behavioral modification guy, and the second was more of a classic talk therapist, and both helped me in really key ways. The first gave me tools — I literally think of myself as carrying around a tool box — to stop the hamster wheel of anxiety, and concrete assignments to change my behavior so I could function. The second helped me deal with deeper, core issues that contributed to my own mental health, and it felt like getting totally cleaned out of mental cobwebs and baggage whenever we met.

    I should add that both were essentially free as part of my employee insurance. For the first, I saw someone through the university health plan, who was part of the campus medical center and therefore there was zero copay. For the second, I was able to see him through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and copays were only $5. A lot of these services are really affordable for people at universities!

  3. Thanks for writing this! I agree completely.

    As a graduate student, I suffered from fairly debilitating depression at times. I took advantage of my University’s mental health resources and was fortunate enough to join a Group Therapy setting with other graduate students. This helped immensely. When I started my post-doc, it took me too long to find a therapist and since being a post-doc (at least for me) was far more isolating than being a graduate student things were much harder. So, those of you in a position to use campus resources – I highly encourage you to.

  4. This is an excellent post. Thanks so much for writing it and for continuing the conversation.

    My own family has been surprisingly and sadly non-supportive and dismissive of my mental health issues (anxiety, mild depression, panic attacks), although the conversations with them did reveal that a lot of the issues I’m dealing with have a hereditary/genetic component, which I guess is helpful for context. My spouse and friends, though, have been amazingly supportive, and my close friends and spouse are willing to step up and let me know if they think I’m slipping. I was on meds for a while, which were tremendously helpful and stabilizing as I was learning better coping strategies. Now I can pretty much cope with my symptoms using the behavioral modifications I learned in therapy and general stress-reduction techniques (exercise is crucial for me), so I consider myself lucky. I will be forever grateful to my primary care physician who insisted that I get help after a really scary panic attack one morning (and gave me specific people to call), and who’s checked in with my specifically during my yearly check-ups to make sure that I’m mentally doing ok.

    It’s definitely an ongoing battle though. I have to be constantly vigilant and be willing to re-evaluate once I sense things are getting bad again. And while I now realize that I’ve had these issues for years and years, it was right after I got tenure that they became bad enough to scare me into seeking the help I should have received long ago.

  5. I think it’s helpful to know that all may not be lost in the absence of medication and traditional therapy. It’s a bit of a cliche nowadays to assume they’re necessary.

    I’m going to start with the discouraging stuff.

    I’m an assistant professor, and I’ve seen a lot of therapists (I just counted–five!) in my life, mostly for depression/dysthymia and anxiety. I’d say one of those therapists was definitely helpful; two may have been actively harmful, as I felt I was spinning my wheels with them and getting nowhere. Poor therapy relationships are demoralizing, but I used to tell myself this was what I was “supposed” to do to get better. It can be hard to know what a good therapy relationship looks like, and even if you do, it can be really hard to find a good therapist: there’s so little reporting and accountability in the profession.

    I’ve also tried three different SSRIs at various points. All of them gave me crushing headaches and insomnia.

    Last year on the TT, I developed temporarily immobilizing anxiety and insomnia that stemmed partly from issues at work. My doctor referred me for off-campus counseling because of the nature of the stressors (and I know there are HIPAA violations on campus), but my insurance took over eight months to decline the referral and appeal. I haven’t had the money to pay out-of-pocket, which has sucked. Some part of me worried I basically couldn’t get better under the circumstances.

    The encouraging stuff: I’ve made good progress on my own. I’ve been sticking with evidence-based treatments, like sleep, exercise, and especially mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. There are some great books and workbooks on MBCT out there! And I feel like I’m making much faster progress with these things than I ever have in therapy, which is not to say therapy can’t offer rapid progress, but that it’s not a panacea. I’m realizing now I used a lot of my therapy sessions for high-level rumination, which wasn’t too helpful, and I was sometimes distracted by the social dynamic.

    Truthfully, this progress isn’t on my own, either. I’ve made an effort to be close to supportive people and distant from less supportive people (or just people who make me feel anxious and down on myself… this includes other faculty sometimes). And I’m putting my mental health first. Seeing my mother still suffering from many of these issues after a high-powered career reminds me that no professional achievement is worth the cost of my well-being.

    Tl, dr: Don’t lose hope! Try to be a kind, dispassionate observer of your situation, and attempt any approaches that seem reasonable.

  6. Loved your post! I started my tenure-track post after 6 months of unpaid leave due to depression. (Major life stresses, small children.) Now trying to talk openly about my experiences to mentors, mentees, students… Depression, anxiety and burn-out symptoms seem to be the major occupational health risks in our profession. I was on SSRIs for a year but they just made me a bit detached from everything and I didn’t notice a difference when I discontinued them. Life changes and re-evaluating everything really helped – as did the classic trio of sleep, exercise and balanced meals. I had to take time off to implement all these changes. I also learned to neutralize negative, self-deprecating thoughts.

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  8. Thank you so much for writing this. I’m currently trying to finish my PhD (in my fourth year) and have struggled with dysthymia and anxiety for most of my life. As is the case with many, grad school has only exacerbated the problems to the point where I will go through weeks or months at a time where I’m barely able to function and make little to no progress. While I know that other students in my department (and professors) also deal with mental health issues, having a mental health issue is very isolating even when you try to talk about it with other people. They listen and try to understand and may even have the same issues you do, but you also see them making academic progress with those issues while you’re still stuck in reverse. Unfortunately most grad students tend to prioritize according to deadlines, so for me teaching and my own classes have come first followed by my research, and that isn’t conducive at all to finishing an advanced degree. I guess what I’m really trying to say here is that it’s refreshing to be reminded that these issues aren’t exclusive to grad students and that even professors struggle with mental health issues.

  9. My own family has been surprisingly and sadly non-supportive and dismissive of my mental health issues (anxiety, mild depression, panic attacks), although the conversations with them did reveal that a lot of the issues I’m dealing with have a hereditary/genetic component. Im still fighting with my anxiety until now and having the best drug for anxiety helps me a lot though.

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