Mental health in academia: my mental fitness strategies

It is increasingly recognised that people in higher education and academia are at particular risk of mental health issues yet often feel unable to speak about these issues for fear of losing face and being considered incapable of doing their jobs or finishing their studies. This issue isn’t of course particular to academia, there are many industries where speaking up about mental health issues may impact on the persons professional reputation and perceived skills. In fact broadly speaking mental health issues are still frequently a stigmatised issue in our society.

But we are getting better at this. Slowly. There is more money being invested in health care services and research, albeit not enough. People are more willing to share their personal experiences both with employers and colleagues, as well as with friends. I was recently at a conference where the lead academic speaker for the day from the hosting department shared her rationale for becoming interested in disability. This revolved around her own mental health and a very personal experience with depression and suicidal thoughts. This was also an extremely successful and impressive individual, who spoke eloquently and emotionally on both disability and mental health. What a breath of fresh air.

I confess I cannot say I have experienced any mental health issues myself as an academic. I  have been a bit up and down  at various points in my life though – and this is probably very normal (e.g. during my time as an undergrad studying at UCL when I was struggling with grades, friends and various social challenges; oh and when I got pregnant and neither my husband or I were employed, we had just moved countries and were living on my parents couch). These experiences have helped me understand myself. These experiences have helped me identify where my threshold is and what maintains my mental fitness.

Mental fitness is a term someone mentioned to me just yesterday- they were suggesting that mental fitness is a term we could use to describe how we keep ourselves mentally well and healthy. We discussed that actually we all have to work at this. That mental fitness requires work, specific strategies and that these are different for each person. Not all that dissimilar to physical fitness. For me my mental fitness regimes includes:

  • Exercise: I love to run. Or do any kind of exercise. I suspect that is why i found pregnancy so difficult. For a long period I couldn’t run during my pregnancy. I now run about 2-3 times a week, and sometimes I swim or ride my bike or even do some yoga. Without making time for these i notice I can’t concentrate on writing or reading quite so well, I get fidgety and my husband would suggest that I also get very angry! So even when I have too much work on- I still prioritise this. As I know that Ill work better for having been for a run.
  • Family and friends: I do not feel guilty for spending time with them. I make sure that when I spend time with my family I am present. with them. Equally, I do not feel guilty about not spending time with my family when I am working. Although if I am honest I feel guilty about both- but i try to keep a balance in terms of time This seems to balance the guilt so it doesn’t entirely overwhelm me.
  • Doing work that I feel is important: I have found that choosing work that feels valuable and worthwhile makes me feel like I have purpose. Sometimes when I am bogged down with something technical and tricky such as an ethics application or statistics or IT issues I find attending a support group, giving a presentation really helpful. Speaking to SLTs and people with PPA who will hopefully benefit from my work makes it worth it.
  • Getting work done: I also find I have a few strategies to make me feel like I am getting something done. Both clinical and academic work can sometimes feel like your wading through an endless bog of sticky mess, you turn another corner and there is another mile ahead of you with no end in sight. So I have learnt to highlight the things I do get done so I feel a sense of achievement. I have to do lists with every small or large activity listed. On a daily basis I tick of what I have achieved and carry over ongoing tasks. This makes me feel like I am actually making progress and not sinking into a pit of despair.
  • Prioritising: I really like to write blogs. I really like doing presentations. I really enjoy networking. So I prioritise them alongside the harder stuff. I make sure every hard piece of work I do I reward myself or prioritise the work I feel I am better at. Even if it isn’t as ‘valuable’ or as ‘important’- it is important to me.
  • Diet coke: For those who know me well they will also know that I drink a lot of diet coke. I do so love diet coke, It makes me ever so happy. And although I know it could perhaps be bad for me- I drink it. And I love it. It provides me with quality of life. So my last tip is enjoy the odd sin! Even if my mum, my children and lots of friends and colleagues suggest it might be bad for me I feel no shame and no guilt when I crack a can in a meeting or a talk. Diet coke makes me feel better when nothing else can!

 

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