Monthly Archives: June 2013

Academia Should Come With Free Counseling

Mental Health | New Faculty

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(I wrote this post with my own experience in mind to begin with since that’s the most solid one I have. I would like this to create a conversation about the state of mental health in academia. I have seen sites like Depressed Academics among others and the issue has been on my mind (no pun intended) for quite some time. I would love to hear your thoughts, what you’d like to share, and how you handle your own mental health and that of your students when you suspect that they may be sinking too far).

I was on the phone with a dear friend who’s still in her graduate program and we were joking about the weird paradigm you live in while you’re in graduate school. My comment,

“it should come with at least six counseling sessions once you defend.”

I was not joking.

Grad school and academia is this weird vortex of suck where one day, you’re on top of the world and the next, you’re eating a pint of ice cream (or drinking several pints of beer) in rejection. You are constantly looking to your department head, your P&T committee, the grant review system, or some pie in the sky for affirmation or rejection and quite frankly: it takes a toll on you. I’m not saying that other professions aren’t any more or less stressful here, but perhaps we need to rethink our views on the perceptions we have of mental health. Many professions outwardly frown on people who acknowledge they’re struggling personally-whether it be emotional or mental, or just plain old life sneaking up.

No matter how healthy your ego is when you start grad school, odds are: it kicks your ass several times over. While I’d like to think it’s like the military, where they break you down to re-program you, it’s not. Grad school just breaks you down. It does very little to reprogram you for anything else past that. Many grad programs will say, “we prepare future leaders” but what the hell does that even mean? Bueller?

Academia is the silent killer of emotional well being like hearing loss is a silent killer. I never would have thought that working in academia would take the toll on my mental state that it has and my mom will tell you, I’m pretty tough 🙂 thanks mom! All jokes aside, it eats away at us-stressing us out, deteriorating our physical and mental health. The academy is slow and yet so fast all at the same time.

I’ll use myself as an example. I finished my program and didn’t really feel like I’d dumped “grad school mentality” for a solid year. Another year has passed, and now am I finding my own individual voice for things related to the academy. Maybe it is the counseling because yes, I did seek counseling after grad school and NO, I don’t feel ashamed to share that. We accumulate a lot of mental and emotional “stuff” and sometimes, we can’t sort it all out by ourselves. Family and friends are great, but sometimes we need someone else with an objective and unbiased lens to help us view things a bit differently. Sometimes, we just need the affirmation that our brain still works correctly and that we are indeed perfectly capable once again. I have no personal stigma if people share with me they’ve gone to counseling. Couples who want to get married are often offered counseling, trauma victims receive counseling, people who work in high risk environments are offered it, so what’s the big deal?

I don’t want this post to turn into the ‘mental illness post’ because that’s a big old ball of wax I’m not ready to delve into (I am working on it), but this is what I know from my own experience:

  • I needed to rap it out with someone
  • It doesn’t mean I’m weak, mentally ill, or ‘sick’ in any way, shape or form (and if I was or am, who the hell really cares as long as I’m not putting anyone, including myself, in danger?)
  • I feel better, I got the perspective I needed on things (in my faculty and personal life)
  • My personal life affects my faculty life and vice versa so for me, it was a necessary evil
  • I’m thankful for insurance to help cover the cost, but when I looked at what the true cost would be without benefits, it was still a worthy expense considering how much lighter and more peaceful I feel at this moment

My life will continue to be chaotic at times. I will still get myself stuck in the mud and get thrown weird curveballs that no one in the MLB would want to swing at, but I will. You know you will.

If you gleaned nothing from this post today, know this: academia can be a real buzz kill for your psyche and it’s perfectly OK to talk to someone about it. You’re not signing your life away, just a few hours and if you can take away one or two valuable nuggets or walk out feeling better about yourself, it is worth it. You’re worth it and your brain will thank you. If you’re concerned about cost and access, think of these things:

  • Many universities offer counseling free of charge or for a minimal fee (what’s $25 to keep your sanity? it’s priceless).
  • Check with your insurance provider, they may have an EAP (employee assistance program) or some equivalent that will help connect you with someone who can meet your needs.
  • Be honest with yourself and the counselor if you do speak to someone. What’s the point of going to the appointment if you’re just going to sugarcoat?
  • If and when you do go to a counseling session, ask for resources. You are an educated, independent person, you can help yourself between sessions and do some of the work yourself.
  • If you can’t afford it, this might be one time where it’s ok to ask for help–from a family member to pay for a few sessions, from another sort of ‘spiritual guider’ of sorts, perhaps even a church.
  • Journaling. Sounds cheesey, but it works. Sometimes, getting it on paper (or MS word in my case) can really help. When you can empty those voiding thoughts from your mind, it’s a place to start. At least you’ve told it to someone. Then, if you do go to a session, you can reference it to help organize your thoughts and be more clear with the valuable time you do have.
  • Be kind to yourself. You didn’t get all confused overnight and odds are, it may take some time to feel ok about your brain again. The human experience is one that cannot be replicated or imitated by anyone else and I’ll be the first one to tell you–getting burned out and backed up on things really sucks.

What do you think about the state of mental health in academia? How do you address it if you have a student or colleague who you feel might be struggling?

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Feeding the Faculty Soul

Feed Your Soul | New Faculty

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I embraced my burn out and changed it up. I have coined the month of June: Feeding My Soul (with some cheese). My burnout was several layers deep and needed to be addressed from several fronts. With projects. And some reading for pleasure. Ok, I’ve been book binging and have gone through five books in just over three weeks. And no, I’m not sorry. And yes, it’s been a fantastic indulgence. I sit and read on the patio in the evenings until the sun goes to bed. No tv noise in the background, no technology making noises at me, just me and the books.

How am I feeding my soul? I’m giving my brain the freedom to think about something other than work. Yes, I’m still working (duh) but I’m practicing and hopefully making the habit out of taking more time out of my day to do things I WANT to do. Yes, sometimes, there’s things we NEED to do, but a random trip to Target felt like a decadence when I needed some things last week. Leaving work at 4 p.m. to come home and repaint a patio set felt sneaky in some way for a few days. And then I realized something: no one was watching. My work is done. My work life is in order. And painting that patio set is really fun. I used to strip and refinish furniture when I had a house and space to do those kinds of projects. I was thirsty for more.

My roommate moved out recently and house cleaning had been neglected knowing he would be in/out 1,000 times moving things. I went crazy: windows, washed the mini-blinds (which is surprisingly easy in the tub), dusted, cobwebs, baseboards, mopping, dusting, purging of items for good will, vacuuming everything, sweeping porch/patio, cleaning out the storage unit, and every little thing in between was surprisingly comforting for my soul. No, I don’t want to clean YOUR HOUSE. 🙂

I turned off my tv service. I was spending the money because my roommate watched a lot of tv and we split the cost but with him gone: no need for it. Once I found out there was no penalty or fee from the company, I said, “turn it off today!” I have a nice wireless blu-ray player and Netflix so I can watch a show or movie if I want too for a fraction of the cost. I have an HDMI connector for my Mac so anything I can’t get on my blu-ray, I can find on my Mac and plug it in.

My vegetable CSA has started, an automatic reminder to be more mindful of what I’m eating. While I still can’t fall in love with the turnip, I’ve found that being more mindful has helped me slow down to prepare food, eat less (another post), and enjoy it while sitting on my fresh patio set in the evenings. I am reminded of that part of “Eat, Pray, Love” when Liz sits down in her apartment in Italy with the simply prepared meal to practice the act of “doing nothing.”

The work is always there. There will be summer programming to implement and I’m headed out on travel before too long for work, but for these precious few weeks I’ve had to work on what I’d like to call a ‘reduced schedule,’ I’m taking the time to soak it up and enjoy it. The rat race will undoubtedly appear as soon as I hit “publish” on this post, but by allowing myself to take a little time, change up my schedule, and feed my faculty soul  I know I’ll be ahead of the game when I need to be.

How do you integrate down time? How do you carve out the time for yourself and the ones around you who matter?

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Burned Out & Suffering

Burned out | New Faculty

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I didn’t take any time off during spring break. I’m paying the price. I took two days off a few weeks ago and it felt like a decadent, selfish act. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t enough and I’m sufferin’ big time. My project rolled right into a summer grant program two days after graduation and while pomp and circumstance was playing, I was prepping myself for a new batch of summer researchers to begin.

I’m staring at myself in the mirror and I can smell burnt toast. Yes folks, I believe the proper term here is: burn out. I pushed too hard this spring and while I’m being rewarded with a personal record number of publications this year so far (six), I couldn’t be more exhausted professionally. I feel the need to discuss work/life balance to myself, not you right now.

Instead of pushing through and ignoring my smoldering smell, I’ve decided to take it easy this week. The summer project started out slowly, training and reviewing articles with the new researchers and it was a nice reminder that my team could handle some more of the work. I took the hint, backed off, and have worked at a more leisurely pace ‘brain-wise’ and have carved out more time to finish a bit earlier and read a few books for enjoyment. You might not think it’s a big deal (super slackers unite), but to me, it is. I was brought up getting up, getting to work, and falling into bed. While it serves me well on the farm, it’s not serving my brain. She’s tired and droopy.  I saw an article about the natural process of burn out and it got me thinking: it’s ok for me to be exhausted and a bit crispy around the edges from the frenetic pace of my life and I need to start embracing it, listening to it, and being more proactive about it.

It also gives me a pregnant pause to re-visit my goals for myself this year:

be less generous with my time

I used to think it was a compliment when people would say how available I was, how easy it was to schedule with me, but I’m learning slowly that it’s my best and worst characteristic. I used to greet my students questions with, “how can i help you?” and my supervisors with, “what do you need?” and that is getting me into trouble. I give until I bleed. Perhaps not literally bleeding, although I’m clumsy, but I give until there’s nothing left. It’s a fine line….

I cannot keep up this pace. I’m at the ‘slow burn’ stage and if I keep this up, I’ll be as crispy as some bacon on a Saturday morning before too long. Does it mean I should quit, find a new direction, and move to a communal living camp in TX? No. But it does mean I need to stop ignoring it and ante up. Change up. Re-work what I’ve been doing. Find a new pattern that might work. I admit, I got into a bit of a professional lag this spring. I was downright Debbie Downer for a few weeks about it. Then, I began to think about why I was bored, why I was lagging, and I realized, it was my inability to challenge my brain. I needed a new challenge. I needed to confront what was in front of me as a professional academic and start assessing my direction and where I wanted to steer it. I let it get ‘boring’ and I let my brain get ‘bored’ and since it’s merely a state of mind, I had the control to change it.

As June begins to melt us like popsicles on the Fourth of July, I urge you to embrace some burn out in your life. Don’t ignore it. Instead, embrace it and use it as time to evaluate why you’re burned out and where you can afford to tame your life down to keep the crispiness of burn out at bay.

What advice would you give to a young faculty member to help them avoid burn out? How would you help them cope with burn out?

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