I’ve been threatening to write this post for sometime, and, as I sit here with a ball of anxiety in my gut because I’ve not worked on anything relating to my thesis for a full 7 days, tonight seems as good a day as any.
Let me start with a disclaimer; I am currently working towards a PhD. This has been my dream since I was an undergraduate, or, to measure it in time, it has been my dream for just over a decade. I’m incredibly lucky that I was successful in both my application to study my desired topic, and won a three year scholarship to do so. Money is tight but it is, importantly, sufficient to live on. Nonetheless, PhD study is a demanding, challenging, and at times exhausting way to spend a few years.
There’s been quite a lot of discussion around the issue of the pressure on mental health which PhD study, and academic culture, place on individuals as a result of this great article in the Guardian; There is a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia. Recently, in my school, an event was scheduled for PhD students and faculty to discuss these issues and speak frankly about how the commodification of higher education was intensifying pressure on PhDs to produce published articles and other ‘impact’-ful research output. It was something of a damp squib; faculty were horrified to learn PhD students lost sleep over not getting enough published, not presenting at enough conferences, not ticking all the boxes needed to make themselves employable. Simultaneously, however, they spoke about their own acceptance of a culture where you work 16 hour+ days, reply to emails on weekends, between 7pm and 6am, and during holidays. They couldn’t see the connection between an absolute acceptance of a culture where you are never off-the-clock and the intense pressure we PhDs feel to complete, teach, publish, earn, all at a break neck pace.
I have a complex relationship with the never-off-duty nature of academia. On the one hand, being able to work in the wee small hours, set my own schedule, and send emails which get date stamped at 3 and 4am, knowing I won’t be thought of as ‘strange’ or even ‘excessive’ is helpful. There is also an enormous benefit that when a low hits and I simply can’t work, I can take that time off and catch up (however hard that is to do) later. Back in the days I worked a 9-5 in an office, and even when I worked shifts in retail, there is no flexibility whatsoever to go off grid, collapse into bed, sleep for 16 hours, have no social skills, and shake uncontrollably in the face of the smallest amount of stress. In this respect, academia is the perfect work environment for me.
In other ways, academia is a really, really difficult place to be when you’re cognitively ‘uncommon’.
“Inspired is when you think you can do anything. Manic is when you know it” – Takin’ Over the Asylum (1994)
Because PhD study is 99% self directed and also involves organising events, how much you have to do at any one time is dictated, largely, by what you volunteer for. When I’m hypomanic I not only want to offer up my services to plan and run any number of events, I also believe I have more than enough time to do it alongside my research. Hypomania can, of course, inspire. More often than not though, when I write when at my most manic, it tends to be repetitive drivel rather than incisive analysis. I don’t feel too bad about that though – some words on a page are better than none.
Almost counter-intuitively though, despite all the discussion that’s happening about mental ill health in academia, I find it one of the hardest places to talk about my own, intermittent, difficulties. Because even in acknowledgement of the mental ill-health that can be brought on by the pressure of academia, there’s still a framework of acceptable illness; depression, anxiety – these are things we can talk about. These are things we can help one another with by talking about, acknowledging, and working to alleviate the pressures which intensify them through mutual support. However, hypomania doesn’t look like a problem to those who don’t know you well, and depressive periods which you will continue to experience periodically no matter what happens in your life, seem like things both too big to ask for support with, and too fleeting for people to take seriously. Most people are happy to support a friend or colleague for a short period, but patience, and above all, energy, are finite resources for all of us. More than that – over committing yourself while hypomanic means letting people down when you come down – and who can blame colleagues and peers for getting frustrated at that?
Everyone is fighting their own battle with workload and stress – academia leaves no space for anyone to pick up the slack from someone who is struggling. That’s the fundamental issue; whilst everyone is under such huge pressure and falling onto the wrong side of the healthy/ill line, there will never be the space for a more holistic, community supportive model which will enable those with longer term, non-situational mental (ill) health issues to participate fully in academic work and study. And for those people like me, who are managing a long term mental health issue, always running at the limits of my stress tolerance leaves nothing left to tackle the rest of life, with it’s ups and downs, or – and this is the thing I often regret most – to offer to friends suffering similarly from stress, anxiety, and depression.
Academia is a treadmill. The pressure that comes from that unending cycle of league tables, publishing, conferences, 50 hour+ working weeks, and fixed-term-contract job applications is huge. Looking to my future, I am not sure how far I am willing to sacrifice my mental wellbeing for the career, and pursuit of knowledge which has motivated me up to now. That’s not right. Academia should not only be the preserve of those with enormous reserves of mental wellbeing.
Academics are frequently busy writing about the structural inequalities of society, and how they must be dismantled. There is considerable irony that they don’t turn their attention to the fundamentally ableist structures of their own profession which not only exclude or push to breaking point those with pre-existing mental health issues, but actively causes people in the field to become unwell. My ability to resist these pressures – the pressure to give everything I have and then the rest – is pretty low, and yet that is the only way things will change – if people in academia stand up and say ‘no! Enough is enough, we will not submit to this institution’s demands that we break ourselves on the wheel. We will slow down, we will ask the same from others, we will grant one another breathing space.’ The difficulty comes in being the first person to say this, the first person to do this. Because whilst the first person makes a stand, refuses to be broken, everyone else, exhausted though they are, will still be rushing ahead to the next publication, the next promotion, the next funding award. And therein lies the catch.