Talking about mental health in academia

I was oblivious to mental health disorders and illnesses for most of my life. Of course I knew about many of them, but not much more. But, as often happens, it is when your nearest and dearest suffer that you begin to take notice of issues that were not on your radar. When a close friend came close to a breakdown, and we had to consider medical intervention, I realised that I knew very little about mental health issues. Especially in academia. I realised that many colleagues and friends suffered from anxiety, stress, and depression. Most often than not, everyone just put it down to working in academia and research. But there was little I/we knew, even little I/we did to understand what about our workplaces was leading to such issues.

To understand these issues better, raise awareness and to bring these conversations to the mainstream, some of us at our department decided to initiate a discussion about mental health issues with researchers and students. The idea was to simply initiate a conversation about mental health issues, especially depression in the department. Importantly, we wanted to let students/researchers know that there were others who were facing these illnesses, were able to find help and get better. This, we felt, was very important so that students do not feel alone in their struggle. We also hoped that these discussions will give us insights into how we could make the department a better place with respect to mental health. 

In this session in the department, which was not open to faculty, two students who were diagnosed with depression, decided to share their struggle and their journey towards recovery. Apart from just sharing information about depression, its symptoms and effects, the two students were hoping to also show through personal experience that it is possible to get diagnosed, find therapy that works and deal with depression. More importantly, we hoped that it would be an important step in highlighting and normalising mental health illnesses. (When I say normalising, I do not mean in a manner to trivialise it, but to bring to mainstream, to demystify it).  

During the session, the audience (composed of students and researchers from the department) had a lot of questions, mostly about mental illnesses, diagnosis that we felt that the two students leading the discussion were ill-equipped to answer. These were questions that were best addressed by a counsellor or a therapist. We then thought the next step was to invite a mental health professional to the department so that we could address some of the questions we had. We invited a young therapist, PS, who has had many years of experience in dealing with mental health issues, especially in academic settings. It was a very useful session; he gave us an outline of the many mental health issues that are prevalent, especially in academic setting. There was discussion on how to know if we need help, how to help others who might need help, and how to aim for mental wellbeing. He also discussed different organisations that provide mental health based services in Bangalore.

The approach we took of first talking about issues from a personal perspective, followed by a conversation with a mental health professional seems to have created some conversation and awareness, at least within our department. Many students have reached out to us for more information, subsequently spoken to therapists and are willing to talk about their anxieties and issues. Faculty are more open about discussing these issues with students and are aware of symptoms to watch out for. We also recognised that often it isn’t enough to just provide the person with help, if his/her ecosystem continues to be stressful. In this regard, we have been lucky. Thanks to the interest and concern of the faculty, the department has constituted a Workplace wellbeing committee that aims to focus on any issues within the department that might affect personnel mental wellbeing. While we still have a long way to go to ensure that each of us feels mentally well, these are good starting points. There is need, of course, for many more conversations, but we have made a slow start and we hope that we can continue this momentum in the future.

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