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Speculative Diction

Mental health in academe: let’s get our stories straight


On Monday while scrolling idly through my Twitter feed, I learned that the Guardian’s Higher Education Network in the U.K. has been nominated for an award for its coverage of mental health in academe.

The Guardian’s recent coverage of this topic started with an anonymously written article on March 1 2014, which discussed the “culture of acceptance” of mental health problems in academe. The author argued that depression and anxiety due to over-work are normalized in academic contexts, even as mental health problems are still stigmatized. The article received a lot of attention (i.e. a lot of pageviews); apparently seizing on this, the Guardian then published a series of columns and articles (and even ran a survey) on the same theme.

The Guardian’s oeuvre on mental health is an example of the unevenness of coverage on this topic: at its best, it brings attention to important issues that are having direct effects on students and staff in higher education. At its worst (perhaps in the name of “balance”?) it’s superficial and even offensive, reiterating familiar perspectives rather than challenging mainstream views.

Some of the problems we see in the Guardian series, covered in more depth in this excellent post by @JessicaRdctd, include:

  • Conflation of short-term stress effects with mental health issues, and of the so-called “everyday stresses” that students experience and need to learn to deal with (or being “resilient”), with the more extreme problems that some students may experience;
  • Advice column” pieces that provide tactics for students to fend off stress and its effects, tactics which may or may not be applicable or accessible to readers;
  • Focusing on personality traits like perfectionism, and related attitudes such as having high expectations;
  • Telling students to access services or “just ask for help” when these things may not be options (or may in fact cause more problems);
  • Assuming that the discussion has been happening nowhere else other than in the Guardian – and accordingly, avoiding dialogue or exchange with people who responded directly to the articles in their blogs or on Twitter.

To be clear, the Guardian isn’t the only publication where these themes can be found. For example, Times Higher Education has a piece in which “unrealistic expectations” are cited as a key cause for anxiety. Science gives us an example of the emphasis on personality traits like perfectionism, and individual choices. Nature actually solicited input from @Zaranosaur – who set up the website PhDisabled – then ignored all her comments and constructed a narrative about the benefits of available supports. Here in Canada, Macleans published an article that refutes one unfortunate argument with another, and a blog post that ‘splains mental health to us so we’ll know what’s a “real” problem and what isn’t; the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente chipped in with (surprise!) “university’s not meant to be easy”.

The point here is that articles that get lots of attention are likely to spawn more articles – or an entire series, as in this case. But the coverage is shaped as much by the need for attention as by consideration of the voices being heard; this in turn is driven by the needs of advertisers. Clickbait coverage of mental health is more likely to dramatize, and simultaneously trivialize, the problems under discussion, and to amplify themes that already dominate rather than challenging or bringing nuance to them. I know that some might argue any coverage is good coverage, but personally I take the view that if media attention is reinforcing negative and unhelpful stereotypes about mental illness, this is detrimental, even if it is “provoking a debate”. We also need to remember that these narratives can have an effect on policy and practice.

Mental health at universities is far from being a new issue, but it’s a potent one, as I discovered myself when I wrote a blog post about it three years ago. That post now has 90 comments (usually I see five or ten at most) and still receives more pageviews than anything else I’ve written. Many of the commenters agreed that there’s a “culture of silence” that exacerbates all these problems. The message I got from this was that not only is mental health a huge concern for academics, it’s also one they feel they can’t discuss.

Another thing I learned from the response to my post is that in a lot of media coverage, there’s a focus on individual factors (and individuals’ responsibilities) while institutional and societal problems that affect mental health are downplayed or ignored.

Like the larger society in which it’s situated, the university as an institution already treats students as exceptional if they don’t fit a certain model. This goes not only for those with disabilities and chronic illnesses but also for those with financial problems, with dependents, or without the cultural/educational capital to effectively navigate the bureaucracy. The assumed (ideal?) student, the one who’s the baseline on which the institution models everything else, is one who therefore doesn’t need anything “extra” from the university. This means that while services may be available, students who do have these needs are expected to perform the additional work involved in managing their relationship with the institution. As others have pointed out, self-advocating around mental health, chronic illness and disabilities is ongoing work and it compounds the everyday difficulty of accessing education.

While the system changes slowly we need ways to get by within it, and that’s where coping tactics help. But coverage that emphasizes “what YOU can do” to take the edge off your stress, can also de-emphasize the question of why you (and so many others) might be stressed in the first place. Reiterating the need for techniques of self-management also serve to reinforce the idea that you should be able to deal with your problems through such techniques – but what if you can’t? What if feeling “responsible” also makes you feel guilty for needing more help? If you’re assuming it’s all your own fault because you don’t know how to cope – that too is a problem, and it’s one that helps exacerbate the silence that’s already so destructive. Even the responsibility for “reaching out” is a burden when there is nowhere to turn for support.

We need to get by in the short-term, but without parallel critiques and activism around the institutional factors involved, nothing will change in the future. We need to get past the undue emphasis on personal mitigation of systemic factors; and since those factors exacerbate existing inequalities as well, we need to be paying attention to this as an issue of social justice. The “privatization of stress” is political.

For more nuanced commentary on all that I’ve discussed in this post, I would recommend a site like PhDisabled, where these issues are being tackled head-on in a critical and thoughtful way by people who have experienced them firsthand. Contributors bring a wide range of critical viewpoints, and there’s also an emphasis on practical suggestions and solutions for increasing accessibility in academe, which is task not only for those with disabilities but for the institution and all its members. This is part of how the work of change happens: through collaboration, support, and knowledge-sharing. As Naomi Lawson Jacobs writes, problems will be solved through talking more, not less, about the institutional factors involved.

Representations matter. Representations of disabilities matter because they shape people’s perceptions of what kinds of disabilities are recognized as legitimate, which ones carry the most stigma, and who is “deserving” of help. Representations of mental illness matter because in the media we’re still seeing ignorant and damaging stereotypes being presented regularly. All these things translate into material outcomes, through their effects on decisions about whether and how events, buildings, programs, will be made accessible. This is why I agree with Sara Ahmed that being a critical “killjoy” is important when it comes to addressing institutional and societal responsibility. If we don’t, the words might end up left unsaid and that would be much more of a problem.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Andrea / January 19, 2015 at 13:44

    The Naomi Lawson Jacobs hyperlink isn’t working. Will you please post the link? Thanks so much!

    • Tara Siebarth / January 19, 2015 at 13:56

      Hi Andrea. Thanks for letting me know about the link. It has been fixed!

      • Andrea / January 19, 2015 at 13:59