The Mental Illness Factory

Mimi Petrakis examines the issue of mental illness in academia as part of our continuing series on history and mental health.

My psychologist once called academia “a mental illness factory” and I remember laughing. As someone who had struggled with my mental health since my early teens, it seemed the ultimate act of self-destruction to pursue a career that would aggravate illness in those who had been previously healthy.

Thankfully, discussions surrounding mental health in academia have become less and less taboo. Brilliant work is being done by scholars from a range of disciplines to bring to light the acute struggles of post-graduates in particular.

Most recently, Laura Sefton wrote her article describing a situation I, and many others, relate to in struggling to get well amongst an unsupportive and bureaucratic environment. However, as well as better supporting those with mental illnesses, the field must also acknowledge that the conditions of academia are prone to not only exacerbating, but creating, mental health issues.

I should stress that I am neither a mental health professional nor a medical researcher and am speaking only from my experience as a support person and representative of graduate students. This post is not aimed at academics who are all too aware of the tolls this career path can take. It is instead targeted at universities and the people who make decisions within them, encouraging steps towards altering a system which does not leave people in the same state it found them in.

Academia seems to naturally draw in the outcast, the introvert, and the anxious. After all, we are pursuing a career of solitude in which our constant companions are books and our worth is judged by work produced individually out of intense interest. In Australian universities, post-graduates–particularly in the humanities–are admitted throughout the year and often struggle to form a cohort. I have written previously on the importance of forming a community of researchers. However, in most cases and most disciplines this is often easier said than done.

In my capacity as a student representative, I often met post-graduates who had never come into contact with others in their field. This was a situation which was particularly common for those who were new to the university. It was incredibly easy for students to slip between the cracks and become desperately isolated, coming in for meetings with supervisors and then disappearing.

The effects of this kind of isolation can be devastating. In the first years of my undergraduate degree I made no friends, only coming in for tutorials and then heading straight home. Before starting university, I had transitioned off medication and therapy and was the happiest and most stable I had ever been. Two years into my degree I was the most unwell I had ever been. I understand that there are many difficulties involved with transitioning into university from high school, however the unexpected loneliness cut me the deepest. I cannot imagine that this isolation does not have a similar effect on others.

Though crucial to a healthy human life, forming human connections and friendships between post-graduates is at many times not encouraged by faculty or by the field. Katie Fitzpatrick recently expressed the intensity of personal interactions within the academic working environment. The competitive nature of what we do combined with the formulaic point scoring necessary for anyone who wants to achieve anything, makes it difficult to be genuinely happy for a colleague’s success and not revel in their rejections. In such a competitive environment, meaningful friendships don’t tend to blossom, isolating researchers from the small amount of people who can actually relate to their situation. It is impossible not to add the achievements of others in your mind, wondering whether their latest success means they’re ahead of you for the next scholarship, grant, or ever elusive job.

Unsurprisingly, the ‘job market’ and the nature of the work academics do contains multiple triggers that contribute to mental distress. “How hopeless do you feel on a scale of one to five?” I, and many others, have to answer this question each time I have to renew my mental health plan. Goal-setting, routine, and a sense of direction are crucial to many mental health treatment methods and almost impossible to achieve in academia.

We are highly qualified individuals essentially working in a gig-economy. Academics are fighting each other to be increasingly underpaid and overworked. This is whilst being encouraged to move to where the work is, discarding their support networks each time. If they are then able to secure these positions, many universities are refusing to hire staff permanently, denying them the benefits of stable work. It is impossible to settle into any type of routine when you do not know if you will have a job next semester, next year, or ever.

Post-graduates are constantly reminded that they “will never get a job” either by a steady stream of op-ed articles or by delightful members of their family or friends. Working against this barrage of negativity to finish a thesis and pursue a career in academia, requires the simultaneous acknowledgement of the serious flaws in the system and almost super-human determination to do it anyway. Up against those odds, it is not difficult to feel hopeless and this alongside the lack of routine or security can leave researchers vulnerable.

What is truly disturbing is that the constant stream of academics leaving the profession citing mental distress has become so acceptable, even banal. Whilst I was in my honours year, I remember watching the pressures of academia gradually grind down members of my cohort one by one. The people left would joke that the trick to getting an eventual job was ‘outlasting’ everybody else. I never really thought about what we were laughing about, that we were getting into a field which would systematically break the mental resolve of perfectly healthy and able people. Their leaving the field was positioned as defection; a dishonourable discharge of those who just couldn’t handle it. It’s something I heard time and time again when I lost another colleague: that some people just couldn’t handle ‘it’, without ever describing what the ‘it’ was. ‘It’ is most likely incredible mental fortitude or the talents of a skilled therapist.

Universities need to take responsibility for the kind of work environments they create and acknowledge how this workplace culture has a truly toxic effect on the mental health of their employees. It is so easy to get desensitised to these events and forget what they mean. Each academic who leaves the field was at one time so passionate about their chosen subject that they devoted years of their life to the study of it. Universities value their work as teachers and researchers, but refuse to gainfully employ or support them. Each person forced out is not only a loss to their field, but an example of how it has failed them.


Mimi Petrakis
is a mental health advocate and PhD candidate, examining the politics of the Virgin Mary in medieval southern France. She has served as the postgraduate representative for the faculty of Arts at her institution.

Follow Mimi on Twitter @MimiPetrakis.


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