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Deconstructing hierarchies: A way to address mental health challenges in academia?

Madhuri Srinivasan

Academic hierarchies have existed in more or less the same form since the beginning of modern scientific exploration, with students often constituting the bottommost rung of the ladder. In this article, Madhuri examines how such hierarchies can induce and exacerbate mental distress, as well as perpetuate a culture of bullying and silence, especially for those lower down in the hierarchy.

Hiearchy

During an individual’s academic journey, unaddressed mental distress can leave a mark on their intellectual capabilities and their ability to make sound judgements. This is one of the reasons why it is important to examine one of the most common sources of mental distress in academia — unbalanced power structures or hierarchies.

The power structure within academic hierarchies does not arise in isolation and is a reflection of the perspectives of society at large. The inequality and conflicts that stem from this, coupled with a lack of resources to address mental health concerns, pose a major problem for the well-being of Indian academicians.

Hierarchies come in different shapes and sizes

Hierarchies and the order they bring originally evolved to offer a sense of structure for an organisation — a way of allowing them to function effectively. In a hierarchical system, an individual can easily recognize their position within the organisation and use it to understand and fulfil their role. Hierarchies are not inherently unhealthy or damaging to a system. However, when hierarchical structures become rigid or static, they end up stifling creativity and increase the risk for abuse of power.

In a hierarchy with a traditional pyramidal structure, commands often flow in a top-down manner, leaving no room for discussion. A stagnant hierarchy does not allow ideas or concerns to reach the top of the pyramid and communication within the organisation suffers at different levels. This can create a system of unequal opportunities and hinder collaboration and learning.

When hierarchical structures become rigid or static, they end up stifling creativity and increase the risk for abuse of power.

It is also possible for bias to breed in a rigid hierarchy, especially when people’s position within the hierarchy is used to brand them as superior’ or inferior’. This set-up can leave the organisation with an unchecked power balance as those at the lowest rungs of the ladder lose control over their experience and the ability to achieve their potential. This is especially true for structures which demand unconditional deference from those lower in the hierarchy.

Taking an example from the academic scenario, when advisors and mentors assume power and impose some of their own goals and biases on their students, it is hard for the students to grow from the experience. Hierarchies also make it difficult for those lower in the power structure to communicate their issues and obtain help for mental distress. In addition, they prevent victims from opening up or seeking redressal for unprofessional behaviour, such as bullying.

A researcher who requested to remain anonymous mentioned experiencing bullying both first and second-hand during her career. She feels people hesitate to speak up out of fear that no one would believe them or that it would have no effect. This is especially true when the person doing the bullying holds a position of power within the organisation. The researcher likens this to how pedestrians often don’t stop to help an accident victim on Indian roads, To put it rather bluntly, no one wants to get their hands dirty or rock the boat,” she says.

Such voicelessness often leads to young academics resorting to silence as a way to cope with mental distress. This is a frightful reflection on a system that fails to value and respect the learning experience of its younger members.

Anindita Bhattacharya, a faculty at Azim Premji University (APU), Bengaluru, discusses the influence of hierarchies on the culture of silence. There is a prevalent feeling that one will be misunderstood, and one’s symptoms will be attributed to personality flaws, work ethic deficits, underachievement, and health issues,” she says.

Hierarchies make it difficult for those lower in the power structure to communicate their issues and obtain help for mental distress.

The assumption that mental health is an individual’s responsibility discounts the fact that many unhealthy experiences are enabled and exacerbated by unsupportive institutional cultures. Many institutions do not prioritise establishing a community wellness culture and lack a clear institutional vision that aligns with wellness for the whole community.

These concerns become even more relevant in a context where the student is not seen as an equal or as a colleague in an academic endeavour. The role of a student as subservient to their teachers and elders is well ingrained in our psyche,” says Bhattacharya.

Preethi Krishnan, a psychologist and a teacher at SRISHTI Institute of Arts, Design and Technology, believes that the relationship between a student and a teacher in an educational institute is complex. When a student is looking up at an experienced and knowledgeable teacher with admiration, there is a tendency to listen to whatever the latter may have to say without questioning.

The role of a student as subservient to their teachers and elders is well ingrained in our psyche.”

Ramchandar Krishnamurthy worked in the IT industry for thirteen years and then as a school teacher for four years before joining APU. Having experienced both academic and corporate work cultures, he believes that hierarchies function differently in the two scenarios. Hierarchy in the corporate set-up is explicit,” Krishnamurthy says. Such a structure is helpful in deriving profit and growth-associated outcomes, given that the corporate set-up is largely goal-driven and narrowly purposeful.

However, he believes that the academic set-up functions differently. Since educational outcomes are complex and very different from the ones that industry targets, it makes sense to reduce hierarchies in an academic environment. APU doesn’t represent a standard academic work environment in India by not being hierarchical in both intent and practice,” says Krishnamurthy.

Moving towards solutions

Flattening hierarchies completely in an academic set up may not be a viable solution. Nor would it necessarily ensure an egalitarian environment. A possible solution may be to transition to a comparatively flatter organisational structure that has a measure of flexibility built in. Such a structure would allow individuals to communicate and grow together.

Vikram Patel, Professor, Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, USA, suggests some potential changes that could facilitate the creation of a healthy working environment. There needs to be a transformation of the environment to address the work-place determinants of mental health and to help those who are experiencing distress and illness recover,” he says. He also emphasizes the importance of institutional policies that promote zero tolerance for bullying.

Currently, a functional redressal system is lacking in most institutes. While every academic environment is expected to have a committee for the prevention of harassment or abuse, this does not always translate into practice. There is certainly less scope for distress in a scenario when students and other academic members can report to a body designed specifically to address their issues and are trained in conflict resolution.

It’s also essential to create opportunities for peer support of younger researchers as well as people with additional responsibilities (like mothers of young children) and recognise substance misuse as a mental health issue in addition to offering unbiased mental health care,” says Patel.

There needs to be a transformation of the environment to address the work-place determinants of mental health and to help those who are experiencing distress and illness recover.”

Other solutions may include encouraging a culture of transparency and honest communication. An open dialogue can help students realise that they are not alone in their experiences and may even find that their advisors had been through similar situations in the past,” says Bhattacharya.

To create an egalitarian academic environment, meaningful structural changes are needed to address the underlying factors associated with poor mental health. Here, the necessity to differentiate between individual and institutional remedy is also vital. Institutional remedies are essential to address issues like poor mentoring that concern more than a single individual.

Community vs hierarchy by Luc Galoppin (CC BY 2.0)
Community vs hierarchy by Luc Galoppin (CCBY2.0)

What can be done to train academics to be better advisors? How can students be prepared, mentally and professionally, to handle challenges that go with hierarchical systems? These are some questions whose answers might determine whether the Indian academic culture is equipped to support people across the organisational spectrum.