The Legal Beat
Faculty Mental Health
Posted on Tuesday November 13, 2018
As apparently 3,000 different authors have said: “Be kind: Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” This is in essence a plea for compassion. People are a product of their past experiences and battles. And that means that sometimes those things take a toll in terms of mental health. It is true everywhere. Yes, even among faculty members at universities. I should know: You can’t have a childhood like mine and walk away without some scars.
While universities sometimes try very hard in terms of student mental health, faculty mental health is a bit like “Fight Club,” something not to be talked about. However, as one commentator points out, “Academics are at a higher risk of developing mental health problems than people in many other professions.” Some of the factors that add stress include “job insecurity, lack of support from the top, heavy workloads, the competitive grant winning environment and the pressure to balance work with family life, among other factors.”
The “Fight Club” mentality about mental health has two sides to it. First, those suffering fear feeling stigmatized, talked about, having their reputations eroded, and watching their work be judged through the lens of mental illness. The excellent report of Professors Margaret Price and Stephanie L. Kerschbaum discusses faculty concerns. One faculty member responded to their survey with: “I am exhausted and overworked which doubles the difficulty in hiding symptoms. If I exhibit any sign of weakness, other ‘arts professionals’ in my community say that I’m ‘unprofessional.’ Exhibiting signs of mental illness is generally considered unprofessional and is dangerous to my career, I think.” Another faculty member’s concerns struck me the most: “FEAR of losing [a]ll credibility. When my child was younger, fear of losing custody.” In short, fear of losing… well, pretty much everything.
On the flip side, barriers to access can be everything from a gossiping associate dean, next-to-nothing mental health benefits in faculty health care packages, and the shortsighted and incredibly stupid metrics universities seek to place on faculty productivity. As Professor Joseph Weiler points out, there is a problem: “[T]he immense, self-defeating pressure put on young scholars, at the early stages of their career, to distinguish themselves by insane quantitative criteria.” Faculty, particularly adjunct and contract faculty, can be placed in an extreme bind: No time for mental health, and no money for it, either. And worse, the stigma of it can affect how peers perceive competence.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism endemic in an institution can exacerbate mental health issues. Studies have found that hostile campus climates can take a toll on the mental health of minority students. It isn’t a stretch to think that the same must be true for minority faculty members who are on campuses with low levels of diversity.
I also wonder what mental health issues mean for the faculty hiring process. I think about the interview rounds, the flybacks, the job talk, and the constant interactions one has to endure to get a faculty position. I wonder about how much more energy someone with anxiety has to muster versus someone without it. I wonder how someone with the weight of depression musters the energy to be the outgoing, perpetually cheerful person who typically engages the faculty (and its vote). Professors Price and Kerschbaum have recommendations for hiring and retaining faculty. But those require more than half-hearted faculty discussion. That’s hard in the midst of the “Fight Club” mentality.
As one commentator put it, “mental health in academia is too often a forgotten footnote. That needs to change.” It’s hard to change something that isn’t often discussed. Some brave people have spoken out, but academia has a way of nodding its head and turning away. Until tragedy strikes. And sometimes academia will turn away even then.
LawProfBlawg is an anonymous professor at a top 100 law school. You can see more of his musings here. He is way funnier on social media, he claims. Please follow him on Twitter (@lawprofblawg) or Facebook. Email him at [email protected].