Three big mental health issues academics need to talk about
Like many of my colleagues, I was unprepared for the wave of stressors that would emerge during the Covid-19 pandemic, from brutal school closures and disruption of child care to economic losses, protests for racial justice and generalized natural disasters. As a mental health educator and researcher, it was clear that our current socio-cultural moment presented enormous challenges in mental health, especially for people from marginalized communities. We couldn’t just pretend things were normal at the academy anymore.
Despite growing awareness of a mental health crisis among undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty, much of higher education has remained silent or complicit in the perpetuation of the stigma towards mental illness. I have seen this firsthand, even in my own field of clinical psychology. It is high time to determine how we deal with mental health in everyday life in higher education.
I decided it was time to do something to change the way we approach mental illness – by (actually) starting to talk about it. I started a free online course for the public called #talkmentalillness in the midst of the pandemic. I wanted to create and share conversations about mental disorders, symptoms, and treatments that anyone could get a chance to watch, think about, and hopefully talk about.
I have conducted over 30 brief interviews with scientists, mental health advocates, and psychological treatment experts. They included Temple Grandin, public advocate for autism, as well as Kay Redfield Jamison, who wrote about her lived experience with bipolar disorder. Since we are often hesitant to discuss serious mental illness in academia, even when confronted with it in our own classrooms, I spoke with suicide experts and those who explained how to spot the signs. precursors of psychosis. These conversations also touched on age-old and important questions about how we should (and shouldn’t) try to be happy.
These talks raised three major questions for the sector. I hope they spark conversations about how academia might reimagine what mental health for all looks like.
1. Why is mental illness so strongly stigmatized?
The word “stigma” comes from ancient Greece, referring to a mark or literal “mark” given to those excluded from society. Stephen Hinshaw, author of The mark of shame, whom I interviewed in the #talkmentalillness series, notes that alongside homelessness and substance abuse, mental illness is perhaps the most “lambasted”.
Despite advances in the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders over the past 50 years, the stigma of mental illness has increased in the United States. Our own state and federal policies continue to perpetuate this by restricting the insurance and employment rights of those who disclose mental health diagnoses.
But what can we do? We can all change our behaviors, young and old, to address the stigma associated with mental illness in academia. This includes changing the public messages of the “face of mental illness” as incompetent or violent people who are a distant “them” to more precise images of kindness, competence and “us”. I try to talk about this as an instructor and mentor by sharing stories from academics with mental illness to humanize and normalize their lived stories (like Elyn Saks) or by sharing scientific data documenting the common occurrence of mental disorders. among academics, to help standardize it.
2. Why does mental illness disproportionately impact marginalized groups?
Members of marginalized racial and ethnic minority groups have been hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic. Concerns have been expressed that the pandemic could worsen existing disparities in mental health and access to treatment, in addition to higher rates of illness and death from Covid-19 among blacks and Latinxes.
The factors contributing to a higher risk of mental illness among underrepresented groups are manifold and span deep-rooted economic and social structures within academia and beyond. Academia must understand these issues and discuss them openly. This includes difficult conversations about entrenched inequalities in higher education that discriminate against students and faculty of color and / or from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.
In the #talkmentalillness series, Steve Lopez discussed the need to improve mental health services in Latinx communities and Lauren Ng discussed the urgent issue of global mental health disparities. Academia must take ownership and initiate initiatives to learn more about the impact of racism on the mental health of colleagues and students, and take the time to understand what anti-racism looks like.
The sector must also cultivate the open recognition and support of its students and faculty who have endured the racist and xenophobic dialogue unleashed by Covid-19. It is high time for academia to talk about the impact of racism on mental health within the Ivory Tower.
3. What can we learn from the science of happiness?
As a society, we are fascinated by understanding and the pursuit of happiness. But what exactly is happiness, and how can we pursue it? Recent research in the science of happiness has taught us that the things we often think make us happy – good grades, job promotions (including tenure), or pay increases – are transient at best. We have also seen that the happier we want to become, and the more we try, the less happy we are.
Happiness experts have shown us that science can teach us what makes us truly happy and come up with strategies that we can easily implement in our daily lives. These science-based happiness practices include spending money on experiences and other people rather than ourselves or things, keeping daily gratitude journals, and focusing on the present moment. Another is to accept and embrace negative feelings or thoughts rather than pushing them away.
These findings are no secret and are available free to anyone, from online resources provided by the Greater Good Science Center, conversations such as the Happiness Lab podcast and elsewhere. It is entirely possible for us to empower ourselves and our students to make happiness less elusive and more accessible in everyday life.
June Gruber is professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His research explores the science of emotions and happiness and their links to mood disorders in adolescents and adults. Dr Gruber works to understand the mental health crisis in students before and during Covid-19; you can donate here to support this work.