Mental health, academic life and me

by Matt Flinders

There can be little doubt that mental health is a growing global challenge. And it really is a global challenge. Although rapid rises in relation to depression, anxiety, substance misuse, self-harming and eating disorders have been well-documented in many ‘advanced’ and relatively wealthy countries, it has been estimated that over 80% of those suffering from mental health disorders actually live in the Global South where support is rare.

Seen from this perspective the potential role and impact of the social sciences in terms of helping to understand why the mental health of so many nations seems to be fraying and what might be done has never been greater. I’m not suggesting that it is the role of the social sciences to come up with simple answers to complex problems. But I am suggesting that the complexity of the mental health challenge – with its cultural, economic and political dimensions – demands an inter-disciplinary approach with the social sciences at its core.

This flows into a second issue and a focus on the mental health within academe. Here again the story is not good. In recent years a lot of attention has rightly been paid to mental health on university campuses but the poor mental health of academics has received relatively little attention. The mantra of modern scholarship is defined by ‘expectations of excellence’ in relation to research, publishing, teaching and impact but at a time of shrinking resources, limited support and increased bureaucratic and audit pressure.

Added to this is the fact that an increasing number of academics, particularly those at the beginning of their careers, exist in a precarious professional hinterland in which fractional and temporary contracts are the norm. ‘Levels of burnout appear higher among university staff than in general working populations’ a recent report commissioned by the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust (PDF) concluded ‘and are comparable to ‘high-risk’ groups such as healthcare workers.’ Thinking creatively and positively about the mental health of those who work in academe is therefore a key element of the broader mental health challenge in the UK.

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Which brings me to a rather personal conclusion and a focus on the stigma that still surrounds mental health. I’ve always been very open about my own mental health challenges in the hope of playing some small role in opening-up discussion and supporting those who might, for one reason or another, be having a tough time. What’s interesting is that when the issue of mental health comes up and I acknowledge my own challenges with anxiety and depression the most common response is one of surprise: ‘You always seem so positive and full of confidence!’

And I am usually full of confidence. I am a positive person. I’m also fit and strong and I love my job – and I’m good at my job – but anxiety and depression can bring anyone to their knees. In fact, the black dog is on my back as I write this piece. He’s been with me for a couple of days but I know he’ll go again soon. I’ve learnt to manage my black dog – lots of exercise, lots of talking, a little mindfulness and very little alcohol – so that his visits are rarer and shorter than they used to be. What I’ve found interesting about my own experience is that a huge pressure still exists to hide our authentic, private identity – almost to be embarrassed and ashamed about the existence of human frailties. Instead we strive to present a false but apparently ‘sane’ persona to the world. Maintaining these two personas, this ‘divided self’ is exhausting and often sometimes unsustainable.

I therefore took the decision some years ago to be open about my mental health. I’m certainly not ashamed or embarrassed. Moreover if I can promote a little public or professional understanding then maybe this intermittent dark cloud might really have a silver lining! It’s also really important for me to underline that even with all the pressures mentioned above the academic community has been unfalteringly positive and supportive when I’ve needed a little help. I’ve lost no friends and made many more. Indeed, it’s this support that has made me want to put a little something back into the professional community.

So my message is clear: everyone needs to dedicate a little thought to their mental health, just as they would their physical health. If you need a little help, if you’re struggling then don’t feel embarrassed to talk to people and get some support. The earlier you do this the better because you’ll quickly discover that you’re not mad… just normal, and human.


Matt Flinders 150Matt Flinders is President of the Political Studies Association and Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield, a member of ESRC Council, holds a Professorial Fellowship in the House of Commons. He is currently writing and presenting a new documentary for BBC Radio 4… and he is also someone with a history of mental health challenges.

ESRC has just announced funding of seven projects to tackle mental, neurological and substance abuse disorders in developing countries.

 

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