Universities need to normalise mental illness

Mental health issues are widespread among university staff, and we still don’t really know how deep the problem goes. For Pathik Pathak, the first step is more openness

Pathik Pathak is a Professor of Sociology and Director of the Social Impact Lab at the University of Southampton

A few months ago my mental health started to decline. It was mainly because I was burnt out – sleeping atrociously, parenting badly, making awful food choices. It came to a head one morning when, as my mood careened, I realised that I was too unwell to go to work.

At first I wanted to disguise the reason behind my absence. My first impulse was to say I had Covid-19 – everyone was getting it, and it would have been perfectly understandable. That didn’t sit right with me, so I decided to tell my team that I was mentally unwell, and that I needed a couple of days off.

To my great surprise – and relief – I was met with grace and understanding.

A few weeks later, when I’d recovered a little, I decided I wanted to talk publicly about my experience. I put it on social media, and while the algorithm did its best to bury my post, somehow it surfaced to tens of thousands of views and hundreds of reactions and comments.

People messaged me privately from across the UK to say my post was a balm for their own suffering and that they wished they too could open up. Some said their mental health had been terrible for years, but they had no confidence in their colleagues or employers to treat them with compassion. Others said they were anxious that colleagues would see it as a sign of weakness and unreliability. Others told me they had often hid behind physical illness to take time off. Behind every story was the looming spectre of shame and fear. It was heartbreaking.

A sector strained

The scale of the mental health epidemic shouldn’t be surprising, but working in higher education is especially bad for our mental health.

Data from 69 institutions has shown that references to counselling and occupational health services rose from between 50 and 300 per cent between 2009 and 2016. More than half of respondents to a UK-wide survey in 2021 reported probable depression. A study five years ago concluded that university staff experience stress-related illness at a greater rate than emergency workers such as police or medical personnel.

Despite the prevalence of mental illness in the sector, the stigma of being mentally ill remains powerful, and resolutely intact. It’s the elephant in almost every room – unspoken but palpable at times. What’s alarming is that we don’t know how many people are at risk of mental illness, vulnerable to tipping into depression or other conditions.

Mental illness is absolutely not an individual problem. It’s a collective crisis. It’s also, without doubt, a social justice issue – people from minoritised backgrounds are more likely to develop mental health issues in adulthood than those who are not, as are those in precarious work.

Reframe and reset

How can we make universities a safe space when people experience mental illness? My own experience would suggest that normalising and thereby destigmatising mental illness is the first and most critical step.

Let’s start by reframing mental illness, acknowledging that people will likely experience it at some point in their career – just as people will catch a cold or a stomach bug. Having it does not make us weak, or even fallible. It shouldn’t define us. Reframing mental illness from abnormal to everyday would make disclosure and openness much easier.

Relatedly, taking mental health days should become a common practice too. Supporting staff to recognise the signs when they are entering dangerous territory for their wellbeing would also help, as would creating enabling environments to communicate that to line managers and colleagues alike. Preventative action is much better for everyone and may stave off more severe mental illnesses in the long run.

Lastly – and this one might be a reach – senior leaders should model openness and transparency about their own mental health. I know it’s not likely, but just imagine if a dean or a vice chancellor took a mental health day (and made it known).

There’s a real opportunity for the higher education sector to show leadership on mental health. There’s also a real need. We don’t want our staff to become unwell because of their working experience. 17 million days are lost to mental illness in a year – that’s more than to physical illness. If you need to see it this way, that comes at a huge, spiralling financial cost.

It’s going to take a lot of work to undo the structural causes of mental illness. The first step is admitting that we’re not OK, to each other.

6 responses to “Universities need to normalise mental illness

  1. A brilliant read as ever on such an important issue, and I agree that removing the stigma should start from the top.

  2. My workload has doubled since the start of the pandemic. Within the world of Registry Services the accountability regime is an alphabet soup – OfS, OIA, QAA, HESA, CMA. Yoga and mental health days do not really get to the crux of the issue. The overflowing inbox is there when you return!

  3. All well and good, and at your level unsurprising.

    The lower orders however often have a very different experience, E&F, catering, admin and technical staff are usually very quickly removed on capability grounds by their line management in cahoots with (in)human resources. Those that the Trades Unions support and have the strength to go to Employment Tribunal, and look likely to win, do get paid off, though usually with a Non-Disclosure ‘Agreement’. The lack of effective easily accessed mental health support for staff, as against students, at some Universities (cost savings was the excuse for cutting it at Soton IIRC) is also a problem.

    1. I agree.

      However, at my institution that happened to vulnerable academic staff during the last REF cycle too.
      People driven to mental breakdown by a sociopathic Dean and a relentless performance management regime were “managed out” by said Dean and his cronies with the helped of – as you rightly say – (in)human resources.

      The one colleague who had the strength and means to fight back (getting an employment lawyer etc.) was eventually bought off with a financial settlement and an NDA attached to avoid a tribunal and public scrutiny. Her academic career was finished, though.

      It is always funny how the HE Wonks on here tell each other that they care about our wellbeing. LOL.

  4. ‘working in higher education is especially bad for our mental health’ – out of genuine interest, how does it compare with other sectors (including those where openness may be even less of an option)?

  5. All very good points, but the issue runs deeper than ‘acknowledging that people will likely experience it at some point in their career’ as some people experience Mental Health issues daily – it’s all well and good saying that people need to be able to talk about their mental health, and that someone high up taking a day off for Mental health would really help, but ultimately, this does nothing to reduce the amount of stress and pressure all staff are under in their jobs, and it’s only getting worse.

    There’s only so many times someone can end up loosing their job because the workload they’re under is too much before they leave the sector entirely – what use are ‘Mental health days’ when you have no staff left?

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