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The rise of academic ill-health

Across the sector, staff and students are anxious, and mental health issues are actively caused by the way institutions are required to operate. Richard Hall takes a deeper look into the unhealthy way the modern universities are experienced by the human beings within them.
This article is more than 6 years old

Professor Richard Hall is the Co-Director of the Institute for Education Futures, and a Professor of Education and Technology, at De Montfort University.

The recent UniversitiesUK #stepchange mental health in higher education policy states that:

The higher education sector should lead a national conversation on mental health. The sector should be bold, innovative, collaborative and inclusive.

In part, this is a response to the rise recorded in published HESA data of students whose experience of mental health problems forced them to end their studies. We have also witnessed reports from HEPI that “the number of students suffering from poor wellbeing is high”, and that as a result it “seems reasonable to conclude that both the prevalence and awareness of poor mental health has increased over recent decades”.

In the mainstream media, this has encouraged analyses that situate poor mental health, rising anxiety and depression, and the rise in student suicides, against both a lack of individual resilience and social issues like debt and overwork. Such analyses (for instance here and here) are also reduced to an individual’s inability to socialise, an over-reliance on social media support, an inability to adjust from school to university, the impact of helicopter parenting strategies, and over-monitoring of performance.

Resilience as an entrepreneurial imperative

As a result, an increasing number of institutional strategies for student support, staff development and learning and teaching highlight resilience, as a way of building individual “bouncebackability.” (Try Googling “University learning teaching strategy resilience”.) While the hope is that the student will become more resilient, what this actually looks like remains increasingly ill-defined. However, it is increasingly placed in a context that prioritises narratives of employability, entrepreneurship, and the ability both to pay down one’s debts and to survive flourish in an increasingly precarious world of work. Here, good mental health and productivity are intrinsically linked, and being entrepreneurial in maintaining good mental health is imperative. In a society that prioritises surplus value over humane values, all else is a sin.

While there has been some focus on dedicated, institutional student welfare and advice teams, there is an increasing focus upon the role of academic staff in developing student resilience, for instance as personal tutors. The #stepchange policy framework of UniversitiesUK discusses staff training in mental health literacy and health promotion, allocating time and resources to staff, aligning student and staff mental health, and crucially building “mental health – and health – into staff performance” (emphasis added). The risks here to both staff and students are phenomenal, and ignore the wider, structural issues that underlie poor mental health.

The anxiety machine

We are witnessing a growing number of narratives from both students and staff, framed through depression and anxiety, and situated against structurally-alienating conditions of life. This takes the form of: the quitlit of academics leaving HE; established academics attempting to make sense of performativity; reports of the suicides of the precariously employed and the tenured academic; and accounts of the health implications of an audit culture. In these narratives, staff recount the pain of constantly having to reinvent themselves through Student Satisfaction scores, relentless research publication and scholarship, entrepreneurial activity and knowledge transfer, workload management, performance management, and so on. As Siobhan O’Dwyer argues, overwork becomes a motive force and self-care withers:

When your ongoing employment hangs on the outcome of a fellowship application that has a less than 20% success rate, it’s easy to abandon self-care in favour of working nights and weekends to increase your chances. When moving interstate or overseas is the only way to pursue your vocation, it’s hard to maintain a relationship or a sense of self. Almost every academic I know is either overweight, living with a mental illness, or has an autoimmune disorder.

At times, academic and student distress has been explained away as the consequence of a scholarly vocation that adapts poorly to the realities of marketisation. Yet, as Tokumitsu argues, “Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output.” I have argued elsewhere that an outcome of the re-engineering of HE under marketisation and financialisation is that the University has become an anxiety machine. Inside this machine, academics and students are subject to exploitative and normalised anxiety-driven overwork as a culturally-acceptable self-harming activity. Thus, relocating the discussion of mental ill-health as pathologically-inherent in the weak, and widening the examination of the role that anxiety plays in the re-engineering of the University as a business, is crucial. As Kate Bowles and I have argued, this demands a conversation about whether

the anxiety currently manifest in higher education is not an unintended consequence or malfunction, but is inherent in the design of a system driven by improving productivity and the potential for the accumulation of capital.

A bold and inclusive conversation on mental health

Narratives of mental ill-health are a critical starting point for a bold and inclusive conversation on mental health. However, without an analysis of structural factors, any national conversation will be meaningless. For The Institute for Precarious Consciousness:

Today’s public secret is that everyone is anxious. Anxiety has spread… to the whole of the social field. All forms of intensity, self-expression, emotional connection, immediacy, and enjoyment are now laced with anxiety. It has become the linchpin of subordination.

Across HE, this forces staff, both individually and in teams, to reflect on the anxiety induced by imperatives for productivity and intensity, and to be open about the cultures of omertà (the silence of those in the know), which enables staff and student mental health to be damaged.

Critically, the collaborative, inclusive element of this conversation needs to reflect upon the specific, intersectional manifestations of mental ill-health. William. A. Smith et al. have highlighted:

racial battle fatigue as a theoretical framework for examining socialpsychological stress responses (e.g., frustration; anger; exhaustion; physical avoidance; psychological or emotional withdrawal; escapism; acceptance of racist attributions; resistance; verbally, nonverbally, or physically fighting back; and coping strategies) associated with being an African American male on historically White campuses.

This research also focused upon the impact of racial micro-aggressions, as has also been signalled by students protesting Black Lives Matter, Why is my curriculum white?, Why isn’t my professor black?, and Rhodes Must Fall. This also reflects on the psychological stress of constantly having to validate and assert one’s Self. However, with the focus upon BAME student achievement and performance, HE’s expectation of faculty of colour also becomes a potential site of ill-health. For instance, becoming ideal role models carries an invisible workload of emotional/affective labour, where limited numbers of faculty of colour end-up servicing the needs of larger numbers of students of colour.

Clearly, there are layers to these forms of emotional and psychological distress, rooted in issues of alienation, and which include what staff and students internalise and what activities and beliefs are legitimised. Any bold conversation about mental health in HE might usefully start from here.

5 responses to “The rise of academic ill-health

  1. Your main point is right – universities (or any organisation) can’t just focus on subjective states like wellbeing or anxiety, without also considering structural issues, like pay, hours, responsibilities, line management, equal opportunity and so on.

    A second important point is that a whole university approach to wellbeing considers also the wellbeing of staff, faculty, PhDs etc.

    The more data we have, the more we can avoid loaded generalisations. We don’t yet have the data to know if, indeed, ‘everyone is anxious’. American universities are better at gathering this data, through surveys like the Healthy Minds Network (which found, by the by, that African-American students show roughly the same levels of mental health and belonging as other ethnic groups, but trans students have much worse mental health). We don’t yet know if there is a student / staff mental health crisis in university – as a sector, let’s find out, and try to improve it where we can.

  2. A really good piece and resonates with much of the work I’ve recently been engaged with in English and Scottish universities as well as further afield.

    I think having an open conversation about mental well-being is critical and I think this needs to acknowledge the duality of universities as organisations of ‘excellence’ versus the disability / mental ill health of its community and how they can co-exist (they already have to).

    Societally there is some progress but nothing significant and the lack of parity between resources given for treatment of mental illness versus physical illness is telling in the NHS. Universities must be careful not to overstretch into trying to fill the gap left there.

    We have moved further on from celebrity poster people, for example student ambassadors who are public about mental well-being challenges. But when will it be okay for academics to acknowledge mental well-being challenges without fear of loss of status or being stigmatised or for a Vice Chancellor to say they’re having a day to themselves to help their well-being? Presenteeism and being constantly switched on are common but aren’t successful approaches anymore.

    The new UUK framework is a really good start but needs properly implementing with proper resourcing.

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