Last week, my university’s Students’ Association organised its annual Mental Health and Wellbeing Week on the theme of #LetsTalk to facilitate conversations around mental health and action towards self care. The week was rounded off by International Men’s Day on 19 November, which also sought to address problems surrounding men’s mental health, and the fact that suicide is the largest killer of men under the age of 45. Discussions of mental health in academia have also been frequent in the press for months now, with articles highlighting the crisis in mental health in universities for both students and academics alike (see below) including the recent Nature graduate student survey about which I wrote last week. It is heartening to see mental health on the agenda, and university staff and student bodies being so open to these conversations. Nevertheless, I feel it is somewhat restricting to have the conversation dominated by the idea of ‘talking’. I feel we need to make an equal emphasis on listening as well.
That is not to diminish the value of talking. I think it vital for us to have these conversations about mental health openly in order to dispel the stigma around mental illness and to normalise seeking support. The more open these conversations are, the more awareness we as a society can raise for both mental illness as well as resources for people living with them, and we can help people get the help they need. At the same time, talking itself — in terms of talking therapies like psychoanalytic psychotherapy, counselling, et cetera — can be an effective treatment for certain kinds of mental health conditions. It is vital for us to keep talking, both talking about mental illness and talking through our experiences of it. But talking is only as good as how well people listen.
To begin with, the majority of the conversations that dominate discussions of mental health around these campaigns are to do with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and acute manifestations of this that lead to suicide. This dominance can eclipse other conditions like schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, or chronic fatigue in these discussions around mental health, thereby diminishing the support people suffering from these conditions can get. Moreover, talking is just one of the many options: it can work adequately for some, but for most people, particularly those with more complex or acute conditions, they need a combination of strategies — talking therapies, lifestyle changes like diet, pets, or exercise, medication, CBT, alternative therapies like mindfulness or meditation, et cetera — to manage their mental health. Talking does help make people more aware of these other resources, but merely ‘talking’ is not enough and we should make these facilities readily accessible and affordable in addition to simply raising awareness of them.
We need to be doing more than just talking, and this is why I feel we need to be listening as well. By listening, I mean we should be able to listen to and support friends and colleagues when they talk to us about their experiences. Of all of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Week events, only one was about looking out for our friends, which I feel is a shame: if we don’t know how to listen, how to be kind to and support the people closest to us, then encouraging them to talk is of little use. We need to know how to be empathetic, build trust and be kind. And we need to fund mental health services better so that people have access to the therapies that they need, rather than interminable waiting lists on the NHS or in private healthcare. We need to listen to the people living with mental illnesses and give them the treatment that they need.
But we also need to listen to people’s illness itself, to hear the symptoms and address the conditions of our society that adversely affect people’s mental health. This is a problem that goes all the way down to the core of our contemporary late-capitalist society, one which is highly individuated and lonely, and further rent by insecure employment, social division, gendered or racial violence, political mayhem and financial precarity. Within academia, uncertain futures and insecure employment for early career academics, and financial hardships and hostile working conditions for graduate students have taken a severe toll on them. Women and non-binary scholars face discrimination and sexual harassment that leaves lasting traumas. We need to start addressing these structural problems that contribute to mental illness, and the societal conditions that are insensitive to people with these difficulties. All this talk is valuable and necessary, but it isn’t sufficient and will only take us so far. We need to go beyond just talking, and start heeding what people say and responding with empathy, kindness and good faith.
3 Mar. 2017, Article in the Guardian’s Academics Anonymous column (https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2017/mar/03/mental-health-academia-off-sick)
Plus a series in the Guardian about the mental health crisis in universities (https://www.theguardian.com/education/series/mental-health-a-university-crisis)
4 Apr. 2017, article by Elisabeth Pain in Science magazine (http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2017/04/phd-students-face-significant-mental-health-challenges)
19 June 2017, blog by Luana Chiquetto on Jobs.ac.uk (https://blog.jobs.ac.uk/health-wellbeing/mental-health-academia-lets-talk/)
22 Aug. 2017, article by Holly Else in the Times Higher Education (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/academics-face-higher-mental-health-risk-than-other-professions)
Acknowledgement: I’d like to thank my colleague Anna Kemball for her sharp and insightful feedback on a draft of this piece which really helped me finesse what I was saying.
 By way of clarification, I am not saying that mental illness is caused by these societal factors: mental illness is a real, often physiological, problem that needs a variety of strategies and treatments in response. But these societal factors aggravate the adversity, and at the very least addressing them well help mitigate a fair degree of harm.