Mental health and higher education podcast

This podcast is an open discussion about mental health in higher education.

We speak with three guests, two working in academia and one working closely with academics, about what factors can impact the mental health of academics.


Speaker profile(s)

Dr Sehar Graham is a senior lecturer based in the UK, teaching subjects including marketing, leadership, and organisational behaviour focusing on the events industry. Alongside almost 12 years of teaching experience, she has a Doctorate in Education. Prior to moving over to academia, Sehar spent 15 years working as an events professional in the UK events industry across London and Manchester in the UK. Sehar is passionate about (good) mental health and wants to normalise the conversation around academics’ mental health within higher education.

Dr Stefano Zucca is a neuroscientist and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at University of Turin. His academic interest is understanding how our brain integrates and uses sensory information from the outside world to guide our instinctive responses. In the past years he has been involved in activities aimed in raising awareness and promoting discussion about Mental Health in academia, including delivering talks and workshops both nationally and internationally. Stefano strongly believes in the importance of expand and improve the dialog on academic mental health across all career stages in research.

Silvia Gomez Recio is the first Secretary General of YERUN since October 2016, when the network opened its Brussels office. She is responsible for the strategic leadership, networking actions and the implementation of the network’s strategy. The Young European Research University Network (YERUN) is a group of like-minded young research universities in Europe that strengthens and facilitates cooperation in areas of research, education and services to society. At present, YERUN includes 22 member universities.

In this episode:

  • What unique challenges do academics face when it comes to mental health?
  • Are research frameworks useful, or do they add unnecessary stress to the profession?
  • How do mental health stressors in the industry, and the support received, vary internationally?
  • How can academics balance the research and teaching elements of their roles?
  • What causes academics to consider leaving the industry? What can cause them to stay?
  • How can higher education institutions better support academics’ mental health?

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Mental health and higher education

Daniel Ridge (DR): Mental health affects many, if not all of us, at some point in our lives. In today's episode, we will examine the particular stressors that can affect those working in academia. To inform this discussion, we're joined by Dr. Sehar Graham.

Sehar Graham (SGr): Hello, my name is Dr. Sehar Graham and I'm a senior lecturer based in the United Kingdom. I teach a variety of different subjects including marketing, leadership, mainly focusing on the UK events industry.

DR: Our second guest is Dr. Stefano Zucca.

Stefano Zucca (SZ): Hello, I’m Dr. Stefano Zucca. I'm a neuroscientist. I am a postdoc in the University of Turin in Italy. And my main interest is understanding how our external environment is perceived by our brain and guides our innate behaviours. And recently, I got interested in mental health among academics.

DR: Finally, we're joined by Silvia Gomez.

Silvia Gomez (SG): Hello, I'm Silvia Gomez, and I'm the secretary general of YERUN. That is a network of Young Research European Universities. I work very much on policy developments and following what our universities can do to improve the higher education system.

DR: So welcome, everyone. We're here to talk specifically about the role of mental health and higher education. Perhaps I could begin by asking a fairly simple question, and that is; What unique challenges do you think academics face when it comes to mental health?

SGr: The reason why I'm on this podcast, and the reason why I feel so passionately about it was that I had a mental health breakdown as a result of stress at work. And that was the first time in my entire professional life that that's ever happened to me. So that was a bit of a steep learning curve. Certainly, I think in academia, there's this perception that when it's our summer holidays, that students go off, and we all go back and have these fantastic long holidays. And that's not the reality of working in higher education. Higher education can be brutal, it's no different to any other job. But there are a lot of constraints within higher education, a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure to deliver fantastic teaching, a lot of pressure in terms of research output. I'm lucky I have a permanent contract. But I know there are many colleagues who don't have permanent contracts, who don't have that stability. But for me, workload was a real issue for me to the point that I simply couldn't cope. It's one of those things that I think is unspoken. Nobody wants to talk about academics’ mental health, though we talk a lot about students and how students are suffering. And they have had a rough time, particularly with the pandemic and online learning. But there's very little consideration given to us academics and how we've been coping and the pressures on us. And at the end of the day, we're just human, really. So mental health affects us in a big way. And I don't really think it's something that the sector has fully recognised or acknowledged.

DR: No, I think that's definitely true. There is much more of an emphasis on student mental health and less of an emphasis on the faculty’s mental health.

SZ: I think there's also a little bit of a historical aspect. So if you look in literature, for example, you start seeing studies about mental health among medical students, undergrad students. And I think only like in the past 10 years, there has been an increase in what we know about mental health for academics, and that started from PhD students. And now luckily, in the last couple of years, we have information about postdocs. So I think it's like something that has some sort of like, natural way of developing and it is now clear that mental health is kind of something that we need to care about across all career stages. This is at least what I saw when I was like, looking for information about, and statistics about, mental health in academia.

DR: I spent 20 years of my career before becoming a publisher in academia. So, I have also insight into this when, when I was a lecturer at Vanderbilt, I just felt that the job never goes away. That it's always there. You know, summer holidays, holidays, weekends. I mean, I worked a lot on the weekends grading papers, preparing lectures, doing research, things like that. So I'm wondering how you guys have found trying to balance work life with the pressures of these things that are hanging over, you know, you have the tenure track you have teaching, you know, you have to wake up Monday morning and be on, and you know, you need to prepare for that on Sunday, a lot of the time. So how do you guys balance your work life balance with academia?

SGr: I think to be honest, I've taken a different attitude before my break down than I did after it. So before my breakdown, I was constantly work, work, work, work, work, and you kind of said to yourself, okay, we're in a semester, we've got 10 weeks or whatever I can, if I can just get through those 10 weeks, then I'll be fine. So you almost accepted that it was okay to work weekends. And you know, when you said about marking, and grading essays at weekends, I mean, that just rings a bell Daniel. Because that's what we do. And you almost see it as part of the job, you kind of accept it. And then it was almost a case of I can just get through, if I can just get through these next 10 weeks, then I'll be okay. And what I've, and then you get through the end of that, and you'd come up with a cold or something because your body would be so exhausted. I think my attitude now is that I'm, I'm much better at saying no, I think, I know that sounds…

DR: Oh, yeah, that's right. You have to be able to set boundaries and say “no”.

SGr: Exactly. I mean, I've you know, I've got a daughter who's coming up to some really important exams, I have a husband, I have a personal life. And I'm no good to my students, if I'm exhausted, I'm not going to perform my best. So for me, it's been about saying, no, it's about setting boundaries, which I feel is really important. And it's really about prioritising and at the end of the day me saying, well, actually, I'm not perfect, I'll make mistakes. But I'm gonna do the very best I can. But I'm, I've absolutely and this has been my mantra since my breakdown, I refuse to do anything that's going to make me sick again. I'm so passionate about that.

DR: Well, I would love to bring Silvia into the conversation, I'm wondering what your take on this is, what perspective you have?

SG: I have to agree with, with Sehar that, especially when we were looking into COVID, one of the key priorities for our rectors were very much the students’ mental health, you know. But maybe in a way of being useful as a community, including their staff and their researchers, to their students, you know? I've been looking a little bit also into, whilst preparing a little bit for this podcast, to different initiatives that are on mental health for researchers. I think their awareness and raising awareness about the fact that there is a problem is becoming a bit more evident. So we have different European projects that are really trying to bring this issue more upfront. So there's definitely things happening, you know, now that we are maybe on the way still, do we have a right framework, or not? And I think it's still we have many different issues that surround the world of academia and research, that definitely wrong. And that relates a little bit with the competitive environment in which we are and, and how we try to perform or how institutions are trying to perform to see who's better now than others. That's maybe definitely another good approach.

SZ: Every time I speak with my colleagues about mental health, and what I really like, is to try to get their perspective, whether they are undergrad students, PhD students, or a PI. One of the mainstream is always about competition and pressure, job insecurity. But there are also many others, more different sources of stress, that's all together create the sort of more kind of environment where we feel under quite a lot of pressure. And that sometimes is just linked, for example, to the experiments or whatever, sometimes things, they don't work. And that's not much about competition, but it's mainly like, every day, there are some stressors that sometimes we don't even realise how many we have to face. And so sometimes we forget that actually, we are quite good in managing a lot of small stressors. And, and I think when you make this, make people realise this, you can also make them realise that there might be a way to act in a way that all these more stressors will have a lower impact on their wellbeing and their mental health. So what I want to say is that sometimes there's a tendency to just look at the final stage where we all know there's a lot of competition, there's a lot of pressure, we have to meet metrics, but there are all other small stressors that each of us has, they can be tackled in a way that they might prevent to build up one on top of the of the other. And so I always tried to look not just to look at the tip of whatever is pressuring us but trying to create some sort of like circle where we spread all the stressors and try to balance them and in a way that they reduce the impact that they have on our wellbeing.

SGr: I think that was a really fantastic point that Stefano’s made. And if you think about those small little stressors, and how they add up to something that can become quite overwhelming, and that's just only in the workplace, if we take all of us, as individuals, we've all got things going on in our lives, haven't we, we've either got children or husbands or wives or partners, maybe we've got financial problems, nobody knows what's going on in somebody else's mind. We all turn up to work and we plod on, and we carry on. But you know, we may have disabilities. And I think when you are in a work situation, that gets stressful, sometimes people don't want to talk about the fact that they are human. And other things are happening in their, in their lives as well. And this is where we really need to normalise the conversation around mental health.

SG: Some things that we also face, even in our, in our ways of working. So as I mentioned, we have, we run here a network of organisations, of universities. So we are not performing research ourselves. It's that sometimes we are a very small office, we had three people and things turn to sometimes very stressful, because there are periods in which we are requested to work a lot. And one of the things that I've realised also with working with other colleagues, and there are very many different approaches on how we work. And we tend to maybe give some recipes to how we have approached something and maybe somebody would approach it as well in a certain way. But it's so complex and so difficult to really be able to put yourself in the other person's feet, you know, that sometimes these things really don't work. So overall, there is maybe a need to have much more empathy in our work in places. And not only in research, but in any, you know, in any cooperative or collaborative team working or team, team office or team experience, you know. But if we, if we go back a little bit to the, to the specificities of the sector, try to see a little bit why maybe, among researchers or academics, there is still this, this pressure that maybe it's more notable than in other professions, there are some things that we are now trying also to work on and overcome that there have been there definitely, let's say, in my personal opinion, very wrong. And it really is not only the competitive environment, and the fact that many of the contracts also that researchers have are very much based on funding that might be available or not. So you have that kind of insecurity. But also the way in which we are measured. And the way in which our institutions are measured, is looking into a very linear way of performance that we have accepted as this is excellent science, or this is an excellent researcher. And there is no diversity in this measurement, you know. So there are some activities and some things that we are now trying to push forward. And to change and at least to speak about this diversity and the need that we have to recognise diverse ways of contributing to excellent research. But we're still not there. And I think that really, that really puts a lot of pressure in many of the people that we talk to, early career researchers or PhD applicants, that they maybe would like to do something else, or they feel that they have some things they would like to contribute to, but that's not going to be counting for their professional career. So there is always this kind of looking into, okay, I do this because I think is the right thing I want to do. But then I also want to make sure that I do these other activities that will count me to progress and advance further.

DR: I had quite a bit of experience with that when I was teaching when you're a lecturer there's less of an emphasis on research and more on teaching, but then your teaching doesn't necessarily give you credit for job security. I mean, there's just so much uncertainty, and it is it is a question of what counts toward your job, and in trying to make that appearance. Sehar, what would you like to add?

SGr: I do think organisations, higher education institutes, need to take one step back. And that is we need to treat mental illness with a bit more sympathy. And I saw something on LinkedIn saying that, you know, if you've broken a leg, you would have had flowers and cards, people texting you to see how you are. When you're signed off with stress, because you've had a mental health breakdown, it's radio silence. Nobody contacts you. Nobody is texting you to see how you are. You don't get any flowers in the post. It's nothing. And at the end of the day, they're both you know, you've broken your leg, you've had a mental illness, in either situation, you're away from work, you're not well. And sometimes that very simple question, “How are you?” goes a long way in actually making somebody feel welcome. And I think until we change our culture within higher education where we're actually treating mental illness, that's something that shouldn't be discussed in hushed tones. “Oh, did you hear about Sehar?” “Oh, yeah, she's got depression,” “Oh no, she had a full meltdown”. When we're not talking about it, it's a derogatory term. And actually, you know, talking about this as an illness, we're never going to get past that first goal. I just, I really just don't think we are. And I do feel with my own experience, sometimes there was an element of being uncomfortable that maybe I kept thinking people don't know how to talk to me, because I've had a mental health breakdown. If I'd broken my leg, it would be very clear. “How are you doing? Can you walk now? Are you having physio?”, but when you're signed off with depression it’s completely different. And this is where we need to change our cultural values, really, in terms of how we talk about this.

DR: Well, do you think the universities as an institution, I mean, we've been talking about how culturally we need to make a shift. But do you think that institutions themselves need to be more proactive in addressing this?

SG: Absolutely something of a group of universities in the Netherlands that is called actually ‘Caring Universities’, and they are providing support, but especially kind of courses, but also like forums where people can actually go and talk to understand certain problems, you know, understand also how to cope with different activities, but they are really trying to offer some support from an institutional perspective.

SZ: There is also an aspect which is linked to where you work in terms of worldwide. So I can speak from my experience having worked here in Italy, and in the UK. And for me, in the UK, it was much easier to talk about mental health, mental illnesses. For example, here in Italy, we don't really speak much about mental illnesses, there are some bad examples on how specific mental illnesses are treated. And so when we speak about, for example, the scientific community, we refer to it, as, you know, like some sort of global community, but then there are regional differences. And, and it's, it's good to see that some countries are actually moving forward. And I'm sure like, countries like Netherlands, and Northern Europe, I'm not aware about what happens, for example, in the US, they pay more attention on these aspects. And firstly, I have to say that, for example, in, in Italy, I'm happy that it's now starting, building up, hopefully, some sort, there is some sort of like, flow from other countries. But depending on where you work, and then that's not just the country, but can also be the institution, there is more or less acceptance on what mental illnesses are and also on how much you should feel comfortable in saying that there are some environments, research institutions, which are much more competitive. Where saying that you feel too much stress to a point that you might need some support, this might be badly seen from like, supervisors or other PhD students, or in a way that you are not caring about research enough that you are able to deal with the stress. Now I'm working in the university, which is slightly less competitive, or let's say, more relaxed, and I worked also in research institutes, here in Italy, during my PhD where competition was much higher. And you could feel these different, like, you were less likely to say that you were under strong pressure, and you might need some support.

SGr: When I became sick, and I think in the end, I was off work for about three and a half, four months in total, which has been the most in my entire working career other than maternity leave, I did think what should I say? Because people were asking. What should I say? Should I lie? “Oh, I’ve just got a tummy bug”. And in the end, I went public. And I said, no, you know, I was signed off with stress at work. I've got depression, I've got anxiety. And you know, thank you for asking. And I felt it was my responsibility to say that, but I won't lie, there was a moment where I said, “Oh, my God, am I committing career suicide now?” And then the other half of me was like, “Oh, I don't care. This message is far too important”. I've got a massive platform on LinkedIn. And I use that to spread the message. And the reason why it was important to me is, you know, I'm a personal tutor. I'm a lecturer. I'm involved in pastoral care for my students. They tell me things that are affecting them. And I sit there and I listen and advise. Sometimes I'm just a sympathetic ear to them. And I think it would be doing a, it wouldn't be doing justice to something like mental health if I wasn't to disclose my own problems that I've been having, not for sympathy, but just for them to understand that look, lectures are human too. And then the single group of people who approached me and asked me how I were, I do wonder other than cultural differences between institutions and countries, we're talking about generations, and how different generations within society perceive mental health, from those that perceive it as a sign of weakness to those like my students who, you know, asked me how I was and told me that they felt empowered when they read my, my post, and if I can make a difference that way, then I'm all for it.

DR: I mean, there does seem to definitely be a generational shift. And I wonder how this will affect professionals as they move into academia. Stefano, I wanted to come back to you talking about you know, your international experience, and I know that you're a Mental Health First Aider, I wonder if you could tell us more about that.

SZ: When I started getting interested in, in mental health, in academia, and I started everything with just a journal club on an article, then I was starting, searching around and looking around and see whether there was some training course that could help me understand better what mental illnesses are. And in the UK, there's, there is this programme, which is called Mental Health First Aid, that is available for everyone. And I was lucky that at my university, so I worked at the University College London, they were offering this course free by attending the course you could become a Mental Health First Aider as you become a First Aider, and then you can become basically a reference person for your department that people can contact and can ask you questions. What I found most useful is the training about how you listen to people. Because at the end, one of the first thing that matters when it comes to people struggling is that usually, well, it usually depends on who you meet, but people just ask you how you feel, and they don't really listen to your answer, it's more like conversation. But if you learn how to properly listen to people, and the overall idea of what they teach you in this course, is to listen to the to them without judging. So whatever they say, it's fine. And you're just like, there to listen to what are their issue. This is already like, a big part of support that you need. And then the second part of the course is basically aimed to give you all the instruments to let people know what kind of options they have. So you will be able to recognise whether someone is, needs some support. And then you will have all the resources to give them some options, whether it's the contact of the government support, there are helplines. In the UK, at least from my experience, there are many sources of support available and people don't use usually have access to them or at least they don't remember when they need. So this is I think the idea of the Mental Health First Aider which is a figure where people can go, they can chat, there are people who are, who learn how to listen without judging and then they have a list of resources that they can offer where whoever needs can go and ask for support.

DR: What is the relationship between the university and something like being a First Aider?

SZ: The university has specific people who are trained to, as a Mental Health First Aid trainer. So by attending this course and like attending, you know, specific courses, you can become a trainer. And so I think they are employed from the university, and then they provide this training for free to those working at the university. So we had like a team group with this especially during the COVID pandemic where if someone new or needed, you know how in the world like a group of Mental Health First Aider, you basically have the certificate you have the title, you can put it in your signature you can use it in UCL, or, you could become also wellbeing champion, which are, you know, reference people who are available for all the students and staff members, they can just be contacted.

SG: I recently learned that in, so earlier in August, we had the first conference on researchers’ mental health observatory, and it's something that has been funded by the European Union. It’s one of these practices that they call a cost action, and they tend to explore a new, a new discipline that in which we don't have enough evidence yet, and then they tried to pull people from all over Europe, you know, to see you also internationally yeah but, it has a European focus on bringing evidence on things that that we don't know yet have a topic and then create some recommendations. So that's what I was saying, like, I do see that, from the university sector, there's really this interest also in participating in these. But there I started seeing more this Mental Health First Aider and that there are different universities that are really trying to bring it on board. But there is also an initiative at European level that is pushing for universities to cooperate more in certain areas, and become, let's say, more European universities. Now you tell me “Well, all universities in Europe are also European universities”, but while this is a kind of a more in deep in the level of integration, and one of them focuses very much on mental health wellbeing, not mental health, it’s on wellbeing; wellbeing of researchers, wellbeing of staff, wellbeing of students, you know, and it’s called Only Well. So, there are different things that I see happening. And, and, and maybe what Sehar was mentioning before, is it a generation issue? And I would agree with her that I think it is you know, it's – we, even as myself, I feel I'm myself not yet prepared to be honest, on the mental health or how to face it, or how to, you know, we don't have it that normalised. And, and that's something that we will need to really speak more about, then start engaging more in.

SGr: Just to give you an idea, at my institution, we do have, each faculty has a wellbeing person, a wellbeing officer. And that's only been a position that's been around for maybe three or four years. But that person is an academic, and this is attached to their role. And, and part of that is doing things to help staff with their mental health and general wellbeing. So for instance, it might be things like free yoga lessons, it might be things like discounts on various products. Something that they do offer, which was a massive help to me, was counseling. So, so I was given, when I became poorly, I had counseling that was arranged through a separate organisation, but it was arranged via my place of work. And I'll be honest with you talking therapies, I was extremely skeptical. I was like, I don't really like talking about this. I don't really see the benefit of it. And I think that's another example of generational differences. I think even I was a little bit of set in, set in my ways there. But God does it make a difference. We've all got access to the Headspace app, and you can use that and it will teach you how to take deep breaths, how to meditate, lots of different inspirational messages. But it's basically a program that you can work through and our institution has paid for that for the entire academic year that, that we can use. So I do think things are certainly changing. And I do think certainly as we move forward, I think you mentioned Daniel as the workplace begins to change, and we are bringing in a new generation of people that the conversation will be a lot more transparent around mental health.

DR: Well, as we wrap up, I'd like to ask what advice you might have for early career academics who are now looking forward to a career in academia? How can they best prepare for the unique challenges that they might face?

SGr: I just think, you know, if I was going back to my younger self, what advice would I give myself, and it's, it is basically that you can't please everybody, all of the time, it's practically impossible. Teaching has always been a passion of mine. And I think for all of us, we love doing our jobs. We love teaching, teaching’s a vocation. You know, it gives me a buzz being in the classroom. And I have a real sense of responsibility for the students that I'm going to teach because ultimately, that's going to be part of their degree that's going to be part of their outcome. So I take my job very seriously and I absolutely love teaching – I describe the classroom as my natural habitat is where I'm the most comfortable. But a sick poorly lecturer is no good to anybody. It's as simple as that. If you're sick because of your mental health, you can't function, you can't perform. You're not going to get the best out of yourself, let alone your students. I think my advice would be that sometimes it's okay to say no. And my second advice would be, is to listen to your body really.

DR: Stefano?

SZ: It is extremely important to ask when you don't know something, when you feel that you might benefit from some help. There's no, there’s nothing bad of asking for help, and support is something that I always try to remember to my students, is that if you feel stressed, and you need some help and support that this doesn't, it doesn't have anything to do with your ability to be a wonderful scientist. So recognising that you might benefit of having some help and support is just a way of some sort of, some sort of self-awareness of what are your boundaries, and what is your limit, and when you actually need some support. And the last thing is also to always try to listen to what other people are saying and listen to what they are sharing. You don't have to follow their advice. But it's really useful to listen to other people's stories, as many as you can. Each of us has our own story and each of us ended up doing specific jobs, maybe not the one we wanted to do at the beginning. But each story is really important, because it gives you examples on how people deal with some issues. And also, it normalises many situations, which are really common, especially in research.

DR: Silvia, would you like to add anything?

SG: What I say to our early career researchers is to really remain true to themselves and focus on being motivated for what they really find important. And to go back to their missions, many of them when they start, well, many, all of them, when they start, they have a clear purpose, that starts being perverted a little bit by the possibilities that they find of funding, or the possibilities that they find in publishing. And I always tell them, like, do truly what you want, and try to see what is in the system that you would actually like to change and be vocal about it. So one of the things that we are always trying to encourage to our early career researchers is, if there are things that don't work well, do tell us because we do also influence, thanks to our organisation, you know, we manage to change and promote change, that is, let's say, much more systemic than what we may believe. And that Stefan, Stefan was mentioning, for example, on, you know, the deadlines, of calls, for funding. And we have a direct possibility to talk to the European Commission, for example, as a funder of European projects, and tell them hey, this deadline actually doesn't work, for these and these reasons. And this is one example. But there are many others. We are also involved in, in an initiative precisely to change the reform of research assessment. And to question you know, the lack of emphasis has been binding to teaching, the predominance of research, the important that is now to have impact on society and other ways of communicating the science we produce. And there is a possibility for change. So not only be aware of what is it and protect yourself, but also engage in making the system different. That would be my, my main advice.

DR: Fantastic. Well, I think this is a really productive conversation. So I want to thank you all for joining me today.

SG: It's been a pleasure.

SGr: Yeah, thank you.

SZ: Thank you so much.

DR: Thank you for listening to today's episode. You can find a transcript of our conversation as well as more information about our guests and the programs they spoke about on our website. I'd like to thank Clementine Joly for her help with today's episode. And Alex Jungius of this is distorted

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