Why the men­tal ill health of aca­demic re­searchers re­mains a hid­den prob­lem

Su­san Guthrie, re­search leader, and Catie Lichten, analyst, both at the RAND Europe re­search in­sti­tute

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LETTERS -

Stu­dents are not the only peo­ple at uni­ver­si­ties who suf­fer from men­tal ill health. Aca­demic staff at higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions re­quire sup­port, too. In fact, the re­cent sui­cide of a pro­fes­sor in the US has sparked re­newed dis­cus­sions about sup­port­ing the men­tal health needs of aca­demics.

As con­cerns grow about the men­tal health chal­lenges faced by aca­demic staff, sev­eral or­gan­i­sa­tions in­volved in sup­port­ing aca­demic re­search have be­come in­ter­ested in bet­ter un­der­stand­ing the sit­u­a­tion, and in how best to sup­port re­searchers. Re­view­ing the ev­i­dence in this area for the Royal So­ci­ety and the Well­come Trust, we found that de­spite a

lack of ro­bust data, there were strong grounds for con­cern.

The avail­able ev­i­dence sug­gests that the well-be­ing of aca­demics is worse than that of in­di­vid­u­als in other types of work. Lev­els of burnout among univer­sity staff are com­pa­ra­ble to those of “high­risk” groups such as health­care work­ers.

But iden­ti­fy­ing the prob­lems and de­cid­ing how to ad­dress them re­mains a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge for the higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor, es­pe­cially as the men­tal health needs of higher ed­u­ca­tion staff are still not prop­erly un­der­stood.

Aca­demics are sub­ject to a num­ber of pres­sures, in­clud­ing the pres­sure to pub­lish and to win grants in highly com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ments; job in­se­cu­rity; the con­flict be­tween work and fam­ily life; and the pres­sure to bal­ance teach­ing, re­search and ad­min­is­tra­tive re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

Large sur­veys have sug­gested that UK higher ed­u­ca­tion staff re­port worse well-be­ing in ar­eas of work de­mands, man­age­rial sup­port and clar­ity about roles. The only area where they re­ported higher well-be­ing was job con­trol, but the re­sults were still mixed. Post­grad­u­ate stu­dents face sim­i­lar chal­lenges: about 40 per cent re­port symp­toms of de­pres­sion, emo­tional or stress-re­lated prob­lems, or high lev­els of stress.

One chal­lenge when look­ing to ad­dress the prob­lems of poor men­tal health and well-be­ing in higher ed­u­ca­tion is the fact that staff are not dis­clos­ing con­di­tions. UK na­tional statistics in­di­cate that only 6.2 per cent of univer­sity staff dis­closed a men­tal health con­di­tion to their em­ployer, but they have been found to be among the oc­cu­pa­tional groups with the high­est lev­els of com­mon men­tal disor­ders, with a preva­lence of about 37 per cent. This is higher than the English av­er­age in the re­cent Health Sur­vey for Eng­land, show­ing that 26 per cent of all adults have been di­ag­nosed with at least one men­tal ill­ness.

At the same time, ev­i­dence of the ef­fec­tive­ness of men­tal health in­ter­ven­tions in higher ed­u­ca­tion is lim­ited. Most in­ter­ven­tions aim to sup­port re­searchers to deal with work­place stress, but they might not ef­fec­tively ad­dress the root causes of that stress or the wider men­tal health prob­lems re­lat­ing to life out­side work.

It is clear that more work is needed to un­der­stand both the men­tal health needs of re­searchers and how they can be ad­dressed. Map­ping the men­tal health poli­cies and pro­ce­dures at UK higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions is one way to bet­ter un­der­stand what is cur­rently in place. At the same time, con­duct­ing more high-qual­ity eval­u­a­tions of men­tal health in­ter­ven­tions can help to iden­tify what ac­tu­ally works.

Fi­nally, there could be more re­search study­ing the preva­lence of men­tal health con­di­tions among early ca­reer re­searchers who may face greater chal­lenges, such as job in­se­cu­rity.

More work is needed to pin­point the rea­sons be­hind these men­tal health prob­lems and to de­ter­mine how they can be ad­dressed. Oth­er­wise men­tal health will con­tinue to be the hid­den prob­lem af­fect­ing a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of those in the higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor.

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