Even though talking about mental health in academia is a subject not utterly normalised yet, stress in academia is a subject extensively researched and it seems to have been a thing before COVID-19. A research from 2017 circulated in Research Policy details how stress has been “more prevalent in younger academics, a group that typically faces high levels of job insecurity. As a result, the media increasingly reports testimonies of depression and anxiety, burnout and emotional exhaustion.” Despite the amount of testimonies that report students struggling, “National figures in 2012 for higher education in the UK…show that approximately one in 500 individuals disclosed a mental health problem to their university.” The authors of the article note how “Reluctance to seek help is often caused by fear of stigma, retaliation or the expected negative impact on one’s future career.” As it was University Mental Health Day last week, we wanted to look at the way stress has affected students before and after COVID-19 and cite some resources from our Well-Being and Disability Adviser, Katie Wood, that we think might be of help.
Research-induced Stress and Anxiety pre COVID-19 Pandemic
“The mental health of PhD researchers demands urgent attention,” reads the title of an article published in nature in 2018. The article cites the results of a survey conducted by nature with 6,300 graduate students participating from around the world. The results quoted are not comforting. 36% of these 6,300 students “had sought help for anxiety or depression related to their PhD.” The article also mentions a survey of 50,000 graduate students in the UK conducted by Advance HE where a whooping 86% reported “marked levels of anxiety — a much higher percentage than in the general population.” Both of those articles from 2017 and 2018 respectively were published during a time when students, even though burdened with the responsibilities of pursuing graduate study, had the opportunity to socialise, attend conferences, and engage with their degree in a fundamentally different way to how COVID-19 has forced them to work and adapt. This reveals a fundamental flaw in how we have been managing our expectations in relation to the graduates studies (expectations created by academia itself), but also reveals the ways in which mental health is often sidelined when pursuing graduate study. I am perhaps the least suitable person to discuss this, as I’ve been known to bite off more than I can chew: especially now when the lines between work and personal life have been blurred, where one can stark work at 8AM but not leave their desk until midnight.
Student Mental Health in the midst of COVID-19 Pandemic
A study published last year in the International Journal of Psychiatry, titled “Student mental health in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: A call for further research and immediate solutions,” indicates how “an emergency online learning format…would be expected to further exacerbate academic stressors for students.” The findings from a YoungMinds 2020 study reproduced in the publication show that “83% of young respondents agreed that the pandemic worsened pre-existing mental health conditions, mainly due to school closure, loss of routine, and restricted social connections.” If we have noticed anything among our student society is the increasing call for socialization. Some of the emails we have received from students have stressed the sense of alienation and demotivation, something that we have felt acutely ourselves.
Conny Kaufmann (our Editor-in-Chief) has experienced this first hand. Being a part-time researcher while having a full-time teaching job can be stress-inducing at the best of times, let alone when one can hardly ever leave their home and the boundaries between work and personal life blur. When we were casually discussing how we felt that our workload seems to have doubled since the pandemic she added, “I barely sleep these days. Even though I’m currently not commuting and should therefore have more free time, I stay in front of my computer and keep working. There are no obvious break times anymore, and no break between work and leisure or work and study. I’ve been trying for the past 9 months to learn to play ukulele. I think I’ve picked it up once, because everything else came first. Creating study material is one thing, digitising everything takes forever if you don’t have the right tools at home. After a year of this pandemic, I’m really starting to feel my isolation. It never used to bother me before, but being cooped up alone, without anyone to talk to except my students, is getting to me. I’m not longer just alone, I’m lonely and there’s a profound difference between those feelings. What I miss most is the casual socialising we were used to – grabbing a coffee with your best friend, going out for drinks or a meal after work with colleagues. That’s all gone away. And it’s starting to take its toll.”
Ways to Combat Stress
Though it has always been difficult, students have increasingly felt the disadvantages of an all-exclusive online teaching experience, while they face uncertainty with their future. Still, there are ways to combat some of that anxiety. Last week, we celebrated University Mental Health Day here at the School of Advanced Study. Katie Wood, our Disability & Student Wellbeing Adviser, shared some resources that we hope you might find helpful. Firstly, there is Student Space, a platform full of expert information and advice to help you through the challenges of coronavirus. There resources as to how to study during coronavirus and guides on how to stay well if you are isolated due to lockdown. Another article that Katie recommended was “8 Ways to Improve Student Mental Health.” You might sneer at this, but one of the ways to improve mental health as cited in the article is to stay hydrated. We mean it. I have found that some days I spent hours on end napping — now it might be undiagnosed depression, but it could equally be lack of hydration (I think my main source of hydration is coca-cola, so not great). Another thing to keep in mind is that for the School of Advanced Study’s students there is also a confidential counselling service if you feel you would like some additional support, and we do encourage you utilising those resources, because they do help. For this, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Elena Zolotariov, IES PhD Candidate.