Early Career Psychologist Column

Mental illness in academia

Depression and anxiety are common in academia, but social norms too often prevent the open discussion and addressing of these issues.

By Diann Gaalema, PhD, and Adriana Falco, PhD

Feeling depressed, anxious, like you're not good enough? You're not alone. We all know that being an early career psychologist can be stressful. Likely you've been moving across the country to maintain your position in a field that probably has been producing many more candidates than there are decent slots. So feeling isolated and overwhelmed, you must also be grateful that you've landed your current position and don't forget you need to work yourself ragged to deserve to remain in that slot. Life may seem to be a choice between productivity and a healthy lifestyle. Is it any surprise that mental illness stalks our halls? And worse yet, the majority of those who are suffering from mental illness are unwilling to tell colleagues about it, and this is even less likely to be admitted to a person in a position of power. Academics that do seek help from their supervisors garner responses that vary from "Superb and patient academic supervision," to "Get treatment or lose your job." Historically academia has been unkind to admissions of weakness and it seems as though that school of thought has not yet left the building. I, myself, have been in units that have downplayed, ignored or even promoted mental illness. While one supervisor may joke that “if you haven't developed a sleeping disorder you aren't doing your dissertation right” the joke is likely lost on the student. Overwork and ignoring signs of mental illness become normalized and perpetuated. I've heard many colleagues admit to struggles with depression after one too many drinks, struggles they would never admit to in the sober light of day, and I have lost at least one colleague to suicide. So, what can we do to change this atmosphere? First of all let's try to at least admit this is a problem. We should not be promoting working oneself to physical or mental illness and we should not be ashamed to talk about the problems we're having. Perhaps we can start by getting the conversation started. If you left up a sheet of paper asking people to anonymously report whether or not they've been suffering feelings of depression or anxiety what kind of a response would you get? This may be more common than we think and even such a small public example could get people talking. Could you talk to one or two of your colleagues to see how they're really doing and be honest about how you are doing? Something more than the usual “how's it going?” (which I have to admit I've been hearing quite a bit more “it's going” and less “fine” or “good” which is in itself disturbing). On another level, do you know what resources are available at your location for those seeking help? If you are a supervisor could you make sure your subordinates know that help is available and by extension that seeking help is something they should be doing? Whether these problems hit home for you, we should all take steps to help ourselves and others.