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Academic anxiety

Academic anxiety

iStock.com / stevanovicigor

Most people would not welcome a diagnosis of a brain malformation requiring surgery. But for Nicole Wilson, it was the missing piece of a puzzle that finally clicked into place with a snug and satisfying fit.

“My diagnosis changed everything, because suddenly there was a picture of something in my brain that could be pointed at, that was wrong,” Wilson recalls. “People who were previously unsupportive changed their tune overnight.”

Wilson, 51, and a full-time instructor in the department of mathematics at the University of Lethbridge, had suffered with depression for 40 years, along with other bizarre complaints such as extreme pain when sneezing. A suicide attempt led to an involuntary month-long stay in a psychiatric ward.

“There were people who thought I was seeking attention, and there were people who just told me I should cheer up,” she says.

Then came the diagnosis — a Chiari malformation — and the MRI showing part of her brain literally dangling in her spinal canal. Now, 18 months post-surgery, her website says it all: “On November 24, 2016, I became a Chiari zipper head which changed everything.”

Her story and similar ones are becoming more common as the stigma around mental health in the workplace slowly eases. But a continuing number of sufferers remain silent — the majority of them men — and undiagnosed. It is that silence, and the “invisibility” of mental illness, that continue to make it difficult to talk about, and to diagnose with precision, or at all.

The Canadian Mental Health Association defines mental illness as a variety of mental disorders that can be diagnosed as health conditions characterized by changes in thinking, mood, or behavior (or some combination thereof) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning.

The numbers demonstrate how commonplace it is: an estimated 1 in 5 Canadians will develop a mental illness in any given year; by age 40, about 50 per cent of the population will have or have had a mental illness; mental illness affects people of all ages, education, income levels, and cultures; and approximately 8 per cent of adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives.

The economic costs are in the tens-of-billions annually, for both the Canadian health care system, and for individuals and organizations bearing the expense of time off work for depression and distress that is not treated by the health care system.

Many of the causes remain elusive, with the CMHA describing them as “a complex interplay of genetic, biological, personality and environmental factors.”

But experts can agree the path to achieving good mental health varies from individual to individual, between genders, and involves striking a balance in all aspects of life, from the physical and economic, to the social, spiritual and mental.

It’s the relationship between gender and workplace, and how it affects mental health that interest Ivy Bourgeault, a professor in the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Chair in Gender, Work and Health Human Resources. Bourgeault says post-secondary education work settings contain unique stressors and environmental drivers that are taking their toll on the mental health of Canadian academics, and those around them.

“It’s important to recognize that academia is a structured male patriarchal profession — this hypercompetitive, masculine environment is not good for men’s mental health — but it’s uniquely challenging for women to navigate it.”

Bourgeault sees similar challenges for women in medicine, dentistry and accounting, traditionally “male” professions, but points to something unique about academics: anxiety.

Her preliminary pilot study reveals that across professional groups including academics, doctors, dentists, accountants, teachers and nurses, it is only academics who report anxiety as their number one mental health issue.

“We have a fairly robust knowledge about the anxiety that academia produces and that it’s reported by both men and women,” Bourgeault says, adding that the finding, while unique, isn’t surprising.

“We are in a highly performance-based environment. We are constantly measured and the feedback we receive through peer review of articles and grants is often negative,” she notes. “Everything we do gets quantified. How many papers have we produced? What’s their impact? How many citations?”

On top of these issues, women face additional barriers during pregnancy and maternity leaves. Bourgeault speculates that academic work is becoming more stressful due to increasing demands, but laments the relative paucity of longitudinal data that might shed light on changing conditions and mental health status.

But one change affecting many professors is being watched closely by CAUT: the increased reliance of institutions on contract academic staff, whose numbers have shot up by 100 per cent since 1999 (regular professors ranks have increased by just 14 per cent in the same time period).

With an estimated one-third of all professors in Canada hired on short-term, poorly-paid contracts, anecdotal evidence of stress is rife.

“I don’t qualify for a mortgage. Having children hasn’t been a possibility for me, because I’ve never had a permanent job and I felt it was too risky to have kids without a stable income,” says Deborah Simpson, a sessional instructor at the University of Regina for the last eight years. “It’s definitely affected the life I lead.”

Simpson, who calls herself the poster child for underemployed academics, has gone from self-financing her PhD in the United Kingdom, to a “long drag of contract employment” that’s never allowed her to focus meaningfully on her research, also self-financed.

The final blow came when she was told during an unsuccessful interview for a tenure-track job that her publication record didn’t make the grade. Her anger and frustration at the memory persists, and she recently decided it was time to walk away from her dream of a career in academia, for the sake of her mental health.

Marianne Jacobsen, the chair of the University of Regina Faculty Association’s sessional advocacy committee, witnessed Simpson’s distress, and echoes her story.

“Working as a sessional instructor is very stressful because you don’t know where your next paycheque is coming from,” says Jacobsen, who is employed by the university on four-month contracts while completing a post-doctoral stint. She says the stress and anxiety experienced by contract academics cascades through the system, affecting regular professors, who are relatively fewer in number than ever before, and students.

Bourgeault notes that while many universities allow leave for mental or physical illness, the difficulty remains in convincing sufferers to actually take time off. Moreover, on their return to work, they are rarely accommodated when it comes to their teaching load, and in many instances still face backlash from co-workers.

“You have a profession that has a predilection for anxiety, and yet you have few accommodations,” Bourgeault says. “Colleagues wonder why someone is not in their office, not at work, and are they being accommodated? It causes great animosity.”

She believes that academics in leadership roles should receive human resources training in order to appropriately manage accommodation, leave and mental health issues.

“Most universities don’t require those in management to have management skills and training. That’s frustrating,” she says. “It’s an important structural intervention that is needed, if we’re to make our workplaces more functional.”

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