by Terri Givens, Founder & CEO of The Center for Higher Education Leadership
It is a sad truth in higher education that we tend to avoid talking about topics like mental health until there is some high-profile faculty member who commits suicide. The recent response to the suicide of economist Alan Krueger led many to question the impact of depression and other types of mental illness on those in our profession, despite outward success, noting that “professional success does not suppress personal struggles.” I have seen this play out with several colleagues, and have been concerned that the increasing stress to gain promotions and continually strive to reach an ever higher bar is causing major problems in higher ed.
An article by the BBC reports on a study of academics in the UK, indicating a major increase in the number of faculty using on-campus counselling services. There have also been several high-profile suicides. “Dr Morrish’s study suggested the pressure of performance management and a data-led culture of surveillance had led middle-aged academics to be at greater suicide risk then either students or peers in other professions,” Hannah Richardson of the BBC wrote.
Certainly external pressures are playing a role in the mental health issues being seen in higher education, but there is also most certainly a role that is being played by peers and faculty leaders in encouraging an environment that leads to unnecessary stress and strain. Faculty are expected to work long hours, are frowned upon when they take time off, regardless of the reason, and with each passing year the expectations for productivity seem to increase.
I know that I felt I was on a hamster wheel when it came to keeping up with research, teaching expectations, and service. I relied heavily on my athletic activities, particularly running, to help me keep stress levels down; but there were times when life would get in the way, and I would have to rely on counseling services myself. When my mother passed away, and her death was followed by my brother-in-law and several other relatives, I knew I needed help to deal with the grief that could feel overwhelming at times.
We often become academics when there are many changes going on in our lives. Marriage, children, aging parents, and various other events can have a major impact on productivity. Academics are particularly vulnerable in a system that tends to reward those who can pressure themselves to move forward and succeed, regardless of any personal issues they may be dealing with. We tend to downplay the impact that our personal lives may have, hoping that we can get through and get over the next hurdle without stumbling. When those stumbles happen, we can be very hard on ourselves, and feel the sting of a bad annual report or being put off for a promotion.
Academic leaders play a critical role in creating an environment that not only allows faculty to succeed, but also takes into account their mental health needs. We need to be aware of the taboos that remain around discussions of mental health issues and work to break down some of the barriers. I realize that the stigma that is attached to mental illness is difficult to overcome. My own experience has made me more compassionate towards those who struggle with these issues. I certainly don’t expect everyone to share the same views on the issue, but it’s important to have a dialogue where possible and maintain awareness.
It is absolutely vital that academic leaders not only focus on caring for faculty and students, to ensure their mental health needs are met — but that they also take time to focus on their own needs. Often the first step in helping others is being able to help oneself. Empathy is difficult to practice without having a clear understanding of one’s own life situation that can color how we see the struggles of others. You can’t put yourself in someone else’s shoes without knowing your own shoe size.
In the end, mental health issues are a part of the broader fabric of our society, and we need to understand that academics can be susceptible depression or suicide. We all need to take responsibility for doing what we can to change our approach to these issues, not only for those who work for us, but for ourselves.
About the author:
Terri E. Givens is the former Provost at Menlo College in the San Francisco Bay Area; Professor of Government and European studies at The University of Texas at Austin; Vice Provost overseeing undergraduate curriculum and spearheading global initiatives as its chief international officer. She formed The Center for Higher Education Leadership (CHEL) to provide academic leaders with information and a supportive community for improving management and leadership skills in an environment of changing demographics, financial challenges, and advances in educational technology. CHEL was born of Terri’s experiences navigating these fields and learning along her journey through academe, from professor to vice-provost and provost at universities in Texas and California.