Mental Health, Academic Life and Me

10 October 2018

by Matthew Flinders FAcSS

[World Mental Health Day 2018]

‘How can we live in a mad world’ Matt Haig writes in his book Notes on a Nervous Planet (2018) ‘without ourselves going mad?’ This is not, if we are honest, a new question. In the 1960s the Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing challenged the idea of normality in modern society, arguing that it is not merely people who are mad, but the world as well. ‘If the human race survives, future men will, I suspect, look back on our enlightened epoch as a veritable age of Darkness’ he wrote in The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise (1967). ‘They will presumably be able to savor the irony of the situation with more amusement than we can extract from it.’

Laing was undoubtedly something of a maverick – a countercultural hero. As professional psychiatry swam en masse towards chemical interventions and electro-convulsive therapy, Laing swam against the current and accepted the expressed emotions of his patients as valid descriptions of lived experience rather than the symptoms of mental illness. He therefore sought to revolutionalise the way we think about mental health and mental illness – he aimed to make madness comprehensible and to forge a link between the social drivers of the most private and painful of issues. In his most influential work – The Divided Self (1960) – he suggested that the challenges encountered by his patients were less of a medical condition and more accurately understood as the simple outcome of the tension between the two personas within us: one our authentic, private identity, and the other the false, ‘sane’ self that we present to the world.

Tension, division, authenticity, self, normality…these are difficult themes made only harder in a world defined by fluidity and flux surrounded by on-line hyper-reality and off-line grim reality. For many the twenty-first century – despite its material abundance and next day delivery – really is a veritable age of darkness. Look around…turn on the news… listen to Trump… you really do need to be mad to be normal.

But where’s all this going? Where’s the link to academe? Where does Matt Flinders sit within this story?

Let me answer these three little questions with three little answers that offer an honest account of the promise of the social sciences, that reflects on the mental health challenge for academe and which seeks to expose ‘a divided self’.

There can be little doubt that mental health is a growing global challenge. And it really is a global challenge. Although rapid rises in relation to depression, anxiety, substance misuse, self-harming and eating disorders have been well-documented in many ‘advanced’ and relatively wealthy countries, it has been estimated that over eighty per cent of those suffering from mental health disorders actually live in the Global South where support is rare. Seen from this perspective the potential role and impact of the social sciences in terms of helping to understand why the mental health of so many nations seems to be fraying and what might be done has never been greater. I’m not suggesting that it is the role of the social sciences to come up with simple answers to complex problems. But I am suggesting that the complexity of the mental health challenge – with its cultural, economic and political dimensions – demands an inter-disciplinary approach with the social sciences at its core.

This flows into a second issue and a focus on the mental health within academe. Here again the story is not good. In recent years a lot of attention has rightly been paid to mental health on university campuses but the poor mental health of academics has received relatively little attention. The mantra of modern scholarship is defined by ‘expectations of excellence’ in relation to research, publishing, teaching and impact but at a time of shrinking resources, limited support and increased bureaucratic and audit pressure. Added to this is the fact that an increasing number of academics, particularly those at the beginning of their careers, exist in a precarious professional hinterland in which fractional and temporary contracts are the norm. ‘Levels of burnout appear higher among university staff than in general working populations’ a recent report commissioned by the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust concluded ‘and are comparable to ‘high-risk’ groups such as healthcare workers.’ Thinking creatively and positively about the mental health of those who work in academe is therefore a key element of the broader mental health challenge in the UK.

Which brings me to a rather personal conclusion and a focus on the stigma that still surrounds mental health. I’ve always been very open about my own mental health challenges in the hope of playing some small role in opening-up discussion and supporting those who might, for one reason or another, be having a tough time. What’s interesting is that when the issue of mental health comes up and I acknowledge my own challenges with anxiety and depression the most common response is one of surprise: ‘You always seem so positive and full of confidence!’

And I am usually full of confidence. I am a positive person. I’m also fit and strong and I love my job – and I’m good at my job – but anxiety and depression can bring anyone to their knees. In fact, the black dog is on my back as I write this piece. He’s been with me for a couple of days but I know he’ll go again soon. I’ve learnt to manage my black dog – lots of exercise, lots of talking, a little mindfulness and very little alcohol – so that his visits are rarer and shorter than they used to be. This brings us back to R. D. Laing’s work on ‘the divided self’. What I’ve found interesting about my own experience is that a huge pressure still exists to hide our authentic, private identity – almost to be embarrassed and ashamed about the existence of human frailties. Instead we strive to present a false but apparently ‘sane’ persona to the world. Maintaining these two personas, this ‘divided self’ is exhausting and often sometimes unsustainable.

I therefore took the decision some years ago to be open about my mental health. I’m certainly not ashamed or embarrassed. Moreover if I can promote a little public or professional understanding then maybe this intermittent dark cloud might really have a silver lining! It’s also really important for me to underline that even with all the pressures mentioned above the academic community has been unfalteringly positive and supportive when I’ve needed a little help. I’ve lost no friends and made many more. Indeed, it’s this support that has made me want to put a little something back into the professional community.

So my message is clear: everyone needs to dedicate a little thought to their mental health, just as they would their physical health. If you need a little help, if you’re struggling then don’t feel embarrassed to talk to people and get some support. The earlier you do this the better because you’ll quickly discover that your not mad…just normal, and human.

Matt Flinders is a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and is President of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom. He is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and sits on the board of the ESRC, holds a Professorial Fellowship in the House of Commons and is currently writing and presenting a new documentary for BBC Radio 4…and he is also someone with a history of mental health challenges.