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The Black Hole

Academia needs to recognize mental health issues early

A recent CBC article made David Kent realize how easy it is to overlook someone who is suffering, even a colleague.


I am still reeling from a story on The CBC website this week. After two excellent posts from guest blogger Sabrina Zeddies (here and here), I thought we’d fairly addressed the topic of mental health issues on the blog – academia can be a dark and lonely place after all. But then, this story came out… and like I said, I still haven’t come to grips with it.

I strongly encourage a read – it’s about a young human geographer who, during the course of his PhD in Toronto, turned to crystal meth over a 10 year period and ended up homeless in Winnipeg. The CBC article paints a very real picture – not one you’d expect to hear about your PhD colleague:

Lidstone moved back to Winnipeg where he was born and grew up, and lived on the streets in the dead of winter. Some nights he slept on the floor of the basement bathroom of St. Boniface Hospital. His family filed a missing persons report and his picture was broadcast on television.

We’ve written about the need to identify and address mental health in academia – but the thing for me about this story is that I knew Rob,  I hung out with Rob, I debated with Rob…  and not once did I think that Rob showed any sign of going down the road to drug addiction and homelessness. Rob is a clever and capable man – very successful in his research and I imagine he got pretty darn good at keeping his issues to himself without showing signs to anyone. Perhaps though, people inside the university walls were simply incapable of recognizing the signs and failed to help a young student before things got bad.

As someone who trains graduate students in the sciences, I am also aware that the social sciences and humanities are very different with respect to how work gets done – much more individual, much more solitary and periods of weeks/months go by without seeing your supervisor or colleagues whilst you research your specialized subject area. I have the feeling that stories like Sabrina’s in the sciences could have much more drastic consequences if this solitude were layered onto it.

What can universities do? What should they do? We hope to explore these questions over the coming months, but one thing I can say for certain from my own experiences in the U.K. – checking off the “trained staff” box is not enough.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Larissa Fradkin / August 22, 2017 at 13:25

    What can Universities do? Comply with the Health and Safety Act and ACAS guidance and train the managers to look for signs of mental health issues. And once found deal with them in compassionate and not formulaic box-ticking manner. It is not that hard. Unfortunately it is difficult to achieve this in the current hostile corporate culture.

    On the related note, I have been representing dismissed academics in he Employment Tribunal (as a lay representative) and came to conclusion that there s a need for a short professional development course ‘Neurodiversity for lawyers’ (particularly neurodiversity in academics). Cannot find anyone to engage with to create this small course. Is there any way that you can – as a Public Engagement Champion- put me in touch with any interested parties?

  2. Depressed / August 23, 2017 at 15:03

    Well, one obvious thing universities can do is offer decent health benefits. My psychologist was shocked that my University of Waterloo employer health benefits only paid for 4 sessions. She said she wouldn’t even take someone on if they could only come for 4 sessions because it’s worse than no sessions if you just open up the can of worms and then don’t deal with it.

    Universities should have much better health plans to help faculty deal with mental health issues. I know many faculty on antidepressants who should probably have a therapist too, but can’t afford it.

  3. S. Carrington / August 24, 2017 at 19:38

    Academia has to recognize our nascent mental illnesses, resist Trump, fight racism, teach us about the birds and the bees (i.e. the ticking biological clock), tell PhD students about networking and recognizing their transferable skills… oh and support research and education.

    I appreciate all articles on UA, it’s good food for though, but I know why many view academia as an ivory tower segregated from reality, rife with self-entitlement and a sense of dependency.

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