The words “mental health” and “mental illness” are frequently thrown around these days in both society and academe. However, their true nature is rarely defined or understood. Much of our culture simply doesn’t know how to talk about these topics constructively, allowing their personal and societal effects to linger. Still, institutions large and small continue to underfund resources and research related to mental health as if these problems will fix themselves. In Unpacking Mental Health, Zoë Ayers attempts to address these issues while centering specifically on PhD graduate programs. Instead of providing a list of personal pathologies and remedies, she attempts to show what mental health in graduate schools can look like individually and systemically.

Historically, many of those in power in academe did not grow up with modern psychology as a major part of the work environment. It’s understandable that they do not feel completely competent in using these concepts to train and manage researchers. Nonetheless, a need to address these issues persists as demonstrated by Ayers’ copious statistics. Graduate school is about increasing independence, but better mental health practices open opportunities for better products. This book can serve as a manual to make academics more aware of potential changes.

For example, she examines university cultures of overwork. Many professors simply train students in research with the same practices that they learned years ago. Though involved in experimenting in their field, they refuse to innovate with their educational practices. Extra projects are often piled on, leading to burnout and decreased creativity. Yet student experiences have changed, and human knowledge of educational practices has increased. Instead of piling on, Ayers suggests that academics better focus on priorities and so prevent hard work from becoming ineffective overwork.

In part two, she addresses efforts an individual can make through adjusting their personal mindset and suggests that most institutions do not adequately address graduate students’ well-being. Most university wellness programs are geared towards undergraduates, not graduate students. She suggests needs that such programs can meet. This especially includes “imposter syndrome” (she prefers “imposter phenomenon”) – an almost ubiquitous experience that can be countered by deliberate changes in mindset.

In the final part, she looks at systemic and environmental issues needing attention. Many feel disempowered to bring about these changes, which seem to span the entire academic enterprise. She explores all the discouraging “-isms” along with supervisor relationships and pressure to publish. Students can easily feel imprisoned by the system; Ayers instead cajoles readers to find constructive methods to address problems in small but practical ways. By looking at the big picture, she moves us from myopically looking at personal problems to progressively bettering the entire system. By itself, that can help students not feel alone in this conundrum but a part of a larger system learning to confront bad practices.

Finally, by identifying an expansive list of functions required for graduate education, she implicitly makes the case for team mentoring. No one professor could possibly fulfill all the needs of upcoming researchers. To address these, the academy needs to look past individual excellence towards an approach akin to team science. Ayers makes a strong case that academia as a whole needs to learn to track and reward functions beyond only producing papers. Not only will such rewards help those from underserved groups who disproportionately fill these needs, but it will also multiply the effectiveness of the next generation of researchers, a key product.

This book is obviously geared towards those in graduate school or considering further graduate education. Yet its impact might be more acutely realized through an audience of graduate advisors. These concepts and this vocabulary need to be introduced into academic culture to enhance the next generation of knowledge workers, both inside and outside the ivory tower. Psychology and neuroscience are at the frontiers of today’s advances in research, and those most skilled in their insights will prosper most in the future. While this book doesn’t offer one comprehensive, top-down answer to all persistent questions of mental health, it does identify where to focus effort. Ultimately, cultural change will likely take final shape in a generational paradigm shift, but Ayers’ book suggests ways to hasten those changes today.

More Resources

Staying Mentally Well in Academia Is a Balancing Act

Suicide Prevention in University Settings

The Key to Handling Stress Is Massive Egotism

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