Staying Mentally Well in Academia is a Balancing Act
The post is longer and more personal than my other posts. I hope to make a small contribution to encouraging discussions about mental health in academia.
Mental health issues have been part of my life as far as I can remember, both through my personal experiences and those of close family members. I battled eating disorders, depression, and complex PTSD during my teenage years and twenties. I gradually got better in my thirties. I am now in my early forties, and it has been a few years since my last major relapse (touch wood). The later years of my recovery coincided with my undergraduate and PhD studies and my postdoc years… and it was hard work (or as we say in Australia “bloody hard yakka”).
I have been fortunate to have access to good health care and support systems. While I have come across stigma and misconceptions, most people in my personal and professional life have been supportive. By being open about my past struggles, I hope to contribute to destigmatising mental illness. I want to be part of creating a more inclusive work environment that supports people living with mental health issues, and encourages all of us to look after our mental well-being.
Staying well is a constant balancing act. Academia is not an easy place to be if you are susceptible to mental health problems. The long working hours, the lack of job security as a postdoc, and the hyper-competitive environment are only a few of the many challenges.
When I first made notes for this article, I wanted to share practical tips about what helped me get better and stay well. Then I reflected on the many conversations I had with people about their mental health journeys, and I remembered how unique we all are. While yoga and mindfulness, being in nature, and antidepressants work for me, there are plenty of other things people find helpful in looking after their mental well-being.
So rather than practical tips, I share some approaches and viewpoints that I found helpful in staying mentally well while being a busy academic. 🙂
Self-knowledge and self-awareness have been vital in getting better and staying well while forging a career in academia. I am naturally a curious person, and as a scientist, I am trained to ask questions. I use this to my advantage. I constantly observe how the world around me affects my emotions, feelings, and mental states. If I notice that I am struggling, I reflect on what is currently going on, from the mundane like the weather and what I ate the last few days, to more complex things like my relationships. For some people, working with a therapist helps to build that self-awareness. Other people find being in nature or contemplative practices helpful. When you struggle with mental health issues, your inner world can be a painful and confusing place; I have been there many times. But knowing myself is important because it forms the basis for all the other tools and approach I use to stay well.
Find, and accept your limits
Accepting my limits is a big challenge for me. I set the bar high for myself, and I constantly try to ‘do more, be better’. For many years I kept pushing myself beyond my limits. I don’t think this is healthy. Over the years, I gradually learnt how far I can go and which parts of self-care I cannot compromise on. Even if I work very long hours, I need to make sure I make time for my yoga practice at least three times a week. And I need plenty of sleep. That means that during busy times, I have to compromise on other things, like my social life, but yoga and rest are non-negotiable. Find your limits, then compassionately accept them, as you would other peoples’ limits.
Know the warning signs
Related to accepting your limits is knowing when you reach them, ideally with plenty of time to respond and avert a crisis. For many years I did not recognise the early warning signs, and by the time I realised things were not going well, I was already in a deep hole. And crawling out often took me weeks. My ‘know thyself’ approach to life, was critical in getting to know the warning signs. Whenever I had a relapse, or came close, I tried to understand what contributed to it. I learnt to notice the thought patterns and behaviours that preceded a depressive episode or relapse of my eating disorder. At first, I only saw the warning signs when they were loud and clear, when I was close to falling off a cliff. Gradually, I learnt to read them earlier. Now I notice even subtle shifts in my thinking or behaviour. Then I mentally stop and reflect. Am I sleeping enough? Have I been ignoring my food intolerances? Am I actually mentally present when I am on the yoga mat? Do I need to take a few days off?
Find a place to retreat, a place to reconnect and be yourself
In academia, it is very easy to define your sense of self-worth by your achievements. In German, the word for profession is “Beruf.” It has the word “ruf” in it, which means to call; your profession is your calling. Being an academic is intrinsically linked to who I am. I know many of my academic friends feel the same. This love for our profession makes us committed and fuels our motivation. Still, it can also be detrimental to our mental well-being. Academia is hyper-competitive, and there is no shortage of rejections.
Finding a way to retreat from that world is essential. My retreat is my yoga mat. It is a place that helps me remember that the world is not going to end if I don’t get that grant or a tenured position. When I step on the mat, I reconnect to something inside me that is not defined by my achievement. I try to sit still, breathe and remember all the things I am grateful for. I remember that I am going to be okay, even if life feels overwhelming at the moment. Twice a year, I attend silent yoga retreats to get away from everything.
So, I invite you to know thyself! Keep walking on that tightrope and practice finding your balance. Because in the end, nothing is more important than your health.
P.S. If you are an academic, I also invite you to assist your students or staff in looking after their mental well-being. Be proactive and regularly ask them how they are. Normalise discussions about mental health. If you know a student or staff are struggling with mental health issues, ask how you can support them. Help them to create a working environment that gives them the flexibility to find their own balance.