Viewpoint Teresa Housel Newsletter Editor Published October 2018
When I was a professor at a tertiary institution in Michigan, I lived in a neighbourhood close to the university’s campus. I paused many times in front of our living room window to look out at the neighbours’ gardens and tall trees in the historic neighbourhood. If I glanced out the window around 5:30pm, I frequently saw one of my young colleagues walk past on his way home from work.
His intentional, frenetic nature always struck me. Although he was not a science professor, he wore a white lab-like coat with his name stitched in red across the top-right pocket. The outfit communicated his earnestness toward his subject.
Several weeks ago, I was greatly saddened to learn that this colleague had suddenly passed away. Neither the university, nor his family, and friends publicly shared the cause of death. I heard only that he was “stressed.” I always thought that he worked extremely hard in a field that is known for being high-pressure with never-ending work.
The Silence Around Mental Health
I do not know the exact causes of my former colleague’s “stress,” but his untimely death re-prompted me this week to think about the importance of general wellness and mental health. My next two research projects will examine mental health in academia, so the topic is quite signicant to me.
As is the case in many fields, open discussion about mental health in academic careers is sorely needed. In March 2014, an anonymous blog in the Guardian’s “Academics Anonymous” series described the funeral of “J.,” who committed suicide and was the blogger’s family friend. “J.” was a British doctoral student who had long-struggled with mental health issues and interrupted his studies several times to regain his health.
The blogger wondered if the stress of doctoral work had caused the suicide. “I have experienced the effects on my mental health, and I have witnessed the culture of acceptance surrounding this issue,” the blogger states. “Among the people I do know who have done PhDs, I have seen depression, sleep issues, eating disorders, alcoholism, self-harming, and suicide attempts.”
The Guardian blog received an unprecedented high response from academic readers who described their stressful work demands. The readers’ forum posts referred to the culture of silence that historically surrounds the issue of mental health in a profession where not being able to cope is viewed as personal weakness.
Stress, mental health, and general wellness, of course, are issues that impact many people beyond my profession. This editorial’s writing coincides with Mental Health Awareness Week from 8–14 October in New Zealand. This year’s theme, “Let nature in, strengthen your wellbeing – Mā te taiao kia whakapakari tōu orange,” focuses on how being aware of nature, such as by being outside or even looking out the window at the sunset, can help us relax and re-focus.
In New Zealand and elsewhere, greater awareness and public acceptance of mental health issues is a contributing factor to more people seeking assistance and receiving diagnoses, and vice versa. According to the New Zealand Mental Health Foundation, in the 2012/13 New Zealand Health Survey, one in six New Zealand adults have been diagnosed with a common mental disorder such as depression, bipolar disorder, and/or anxiety disorder at some time in their lives.
Women particularly struggle with mental health issues. According to the Mental Health Foundation, women in New Zealand are 1.6 times more likely to have been diagnosed with a common mental disorder (20 percent) than men (13 percent), and the rates for women are higher in all age groups.
The complex reasons for women’s mental health issues stretch across genetic and environmental factors as many women balance so many stressors, all within a larger culture of gender inequality. To learn more about how mental health impacts women, please check out the LHWC’s library books on the topic. The LHWC’s workshops and ongoing events also help women develop tools for supporting their wellbeing, including mental health