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Is my wagon broken? – Talk about academic mental health

May 29, 2018

Over the years I have seen a number of friends/colleagues suffer through tough times, uncertainty and poor mental health.

 

We all know that mental health is an important topic yet it so often goes unspoken or ignored. There is this ridiculous stigma that the speaker will appear ‘weak’ or ‘unbalanced’, or perhaps even seen as a ‘whiner’ who should just ‘deal with it’. There is also the problem that it often makes listeners feel uncomfortable – what should be said, what response is appropriate, is it a reason to worry?

 

There have been a number of reports/blogs/anecdotes of how the academic life contributes to poor mental health, particularly for graduate students. Obviously, everyone is different. People handle stresses in different ways. A ‘stress’ to one person might be the proverbial water off a duck’s back to another. It’s hard to know what is ‘normal’.

 

Knowing that academic mental health is a general problem is one thing, but if few people actually talk about how they feel, and potentially what triggered these problems, how can we fix it?

 

I think we can start talking about it. So, that is what I am doing. There’s probably a few people who would caution me against posting this. “Think of your career!” “Do you really want everyone knowing this sort of thing?”

 

Here’s my logic: A) talking about it is better than not talking about it, B) I don’t think I really have anything to lose, and C) I suspect a lot of people simply won’t read this.

 

If you or someone you know seems down encourage them to talk. Talk to a friend, a loved one, a professional therapist. There are so many people willing to help if we just take a chance and talk.

 

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I’m going to use the analogy of academic life as being on a wagon. In my mind, it starts out as a glossy blue wagon, everything is new and functioning well. This shiny little wagon takes you down the academic path.

 

I started academia with the sole goal of being an academic. From day one I wanted to get a PhD and have a lab of my own. My little blue wagon was in a glorious open field with ridiculously picturesque things like sunny skies, butterflies and flowers. My wagon meandered down a well-worn path. Sure, there were some bumps and ups and downs along the way but this was ‘normal’. This route fitted my expectation of all other routes in life to date.

 

At the beginning of the postdoc path my wagon was still in good shape. It had some scratches and dents, nothing too bad. All that just showed I used my wagon, it was almost an honour to have those scrapes along the way – they were like battle scars.

 

As my wagon kept going the terrain shifted. It was more of a woodland where you couldn’t see so much sky and gnarled tree roots jolted my wagon every so often. These impediments to my journey reflected growing numbers of tasks, obligations, rejections and criticisms. Worse yet, I had to watch and listen as countless others ahead suffered, and behind fresh-faced newcomers got their time in the field.

 

Sometimes I contemplate leaping from the wagon as I think I can’t bear one more jarring collision, but I still remember just enough of my time in the field that it sucks me back in. Maybe I will get back there soon. People along the way tell me to hang on. Occasionally, an obstacle or figure gives me the impression I should try and turn around.

 

I’m still on the postdoc path, but a self-funded one. The path is no longer well-used, in fact sometimes I can’t even find it. My wagon has lost all of its shine. Half the paint is gone and it has some serious dents that can never be fixed. I sometimes wonder if my wagon is broken, it looks very used and tired. Old trees grow tall and block the light, branches scratch at me as I try to make my way through this dense section of the path. Each scratch is another grant rejection. Another job rejection. Another friend that moves away. Another colleague that quits. Another move that needs to be made. Another month of being away from loved ones.

 

Now I’m terrified of leaping from the wagon. I’ve been on it for so long that I don’t quite know how to make it through without it. Would it be better? Would it be worse? It seems that every few feet there is a new roadblock and I feel desperately lost on this part of the journey. The cruellest part is that every now and then I climb a rise that allows me to see beyond the forest and what else is out there. I hear those voices on the wind telling me to hang on and ride it out.

 

But the wagon is so fragile now. I wonder how much more it can take. How much more should it take? Have I been selfishly riding my wagon to death? What has this path, this journey, given me that can compare with the years of service from this wagon? I remember the carefree field and the shiny wagon. I hear of other paths that don’t seem nearly so tumultuous. People on other paths seem happy, settled and secure.

 

I know that every path has its ups and downs. I know that no path is perfect and everyone’s wagon takes a few hits along the way. I guess I am hoping that next bend in the path takes me to the edge of this dismal forest, and that this journey will have been for something. It’s wrong to think the journey can be wonderful all the time, but should it always be this trying? I like to imagine that there is a wagon repair shop on the other side. But who knows. The number of passers-by are fewer and fewer. Here’s what I will do for now. I’m scratching my name in the next tree as sign for anyone who comes down this path after me. Now you’ll know that I was here. You aren’t alone.

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