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Wake up academia, it’s a brand new mental health patient

Debdutta Paul

Next in our series on mental health, Debdutta draws insights from his own experiences in graduate school to suggest what institutions and individuals can do to improve mental health conditions within academic spaces.


I am currently graduating out of TIFR within my tenure, and I am a high-functioning depression patient.

If the two statements sound contradictory, academia needs to wake up.

I had heard of the terms depression’, bipolar disorder’, maniac’, etc., but never really bothered understanding them until about a year back when a friend confessed to me about the reasons she dropped out of a prestigious graduate school: she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I read up on borderline personality disorder for the first time when my partner was diagnosed with it. Later I went through a phase that was diagnosed as depression. Only then did I really start understanding the dynamics of it all.

In the days following the diagnosis and while slowly getting better, I came out to people about my existing condition. I have received support from people in my department, including my advisor. While it has taken me a lot of time to tell my parents about it, nowadays I can say with a smiling face that I am a depression patient. The reasons are the following:

  • I do not want people to feel like this is a taboo subject.
  • People need to realise that the brain is just another organ, and it can occasionally malfunction.
  • A person who is going through (a) mental health-related problem(s) looks just like any other person.

Not everyone needs to go through or experience mental illnesses personally to know about them. We can learn from others and we must have enough awareness and sensitivity to be able to help and support those facing mental health-related challenges, rather than adding to the problem or being apathetic. In general, academicians still hesitate to openly talk about mental health problems. Conversations around the subject often have a hush-hush tone, and there is a tendency to misinterpret facts.

There is still fear amongst many academics about coming out to their peers. Sometimes the reason is that their peers have unintentionally played a part in their situation, and sometimes it is the fear of being shamed behind their backs. I notice not only a lack of awareness, but also a lack of awareness about this lack of awareness. This is a dangerous situation, and academia cannot afford it for its own good.

Why? Because academia runs on the brain, and it cannot take problems with the brain lightly.

So, what can it do?

1. Make it mandatory for everyone in research institutes and universities to attend mental health awareness sessions. Get experienced people to talk about the issues.

    When an academic openly admits their condition, they stand a chance to lose their academic position. First of all, that will not help their situation. Secondly, the number of academics who are going through some kind of mental health problem— anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and depression topping the list— is significant. Therefore, instead of looking down on the problem, academia needs to wake up and solve the problem at its root. Here is where awareness comes in.

    Mental health-related problems are often not diagnosed simply because the symptoms are ignored. Many of these symptoms (insomnia, lack of motivation to work, emotional responses to academic failures) have become normalised or even expected in academia. When diagnosed, people don’t feel comfortable talking about their condition with people around them, even coming up with excuses to explain their physical absence in official venues. Why cannot people openly admit to it and not feel alienated, when the reality is that a good fraction of academics is facing similar problems? Academia cannot afford to continue like this. Instead of a culture of silence, acceptance, and shame, we should promote a culture of prevention and support.

    I have seen a small number of academics being receptive about the issues— when I have explained the details, they have been willing to learn. This is a positive sign, and we need to take this forward. We need to have more open seminars, give people who are willing to talk a platform to open up about their experiences. We need to accept that the brain can malfunction and that help and treatment are available. Most importantly, such malfunctions can be prevented by detecting the symptoms at an early stage, which can be ensured by raising awareness in the community.

    2. Set up mental health facilities which are staffed by professionals.

      The best help is offered by professional psychiatrists, therapists, or psychotherapists. The more difficult part of the problem is getting the patient to the right professional. Psychopathologies are complex disorders and not generic diseases, so the treatments can be subjective, even the most expert professionals may not be able to treat a case accurately in the very beginning. Counselling requires the therapist to click with the patient, which can sometimes take a few sessions despite the best efforts.

      On the other hand, the available professionals are in high demand because of their small number compared to the number of people in need, and hence availing their services tends to be expensive. What academia can do is to arrange a system where on-campus doctors can refer individuals suspected of mental disorders to a reliable expert and reimburse the consultation fees (at least partially). Currently, such a system is missing in many universities and research institutes in India.

      3. Set up a small first point-of-contact group of people in each institute or university who can be approached whenever a person feels the need to talk.

      Quite often, academics go through problems that can be treated in their nascent stages, with the right kind of reception and guidance. If the symptoms are identified early and a helping hand extended, this can sometimes prevent the need for extensive medication later on. However, it is often difficult to talk about our problems with people we see regularly. 

      For example, when I first realised something was wrong, I had approached a friend who stays in a different city instead of my advisor. Although my advisor was supportive and told me all the right things on being informed post-diagnosis, I doubt whether he would be able to guide me pre-diagnosis as well as my distant friend. And this is not a statement about him, it is a statement about human interaction. Humans naturally find it easier to open up to people with whom they do not interact with on a daily basis.

      This is where a committee of a few people, constituted by aware, responsible students, postdocs, or young faculty members, will be massively useful. Their personal contact details can be made available so that they can be approached in states of emergencies when immediate help from professionals might not be available. These individuals can help salvage the situation when the times are really dark, and lower the risk of a person taking drastic steps to combat their pain. 

      Lastly, this is a personal appeal to academics— please treat humans with care, including yourself. What you say to others even casually can affect them, how you treat them even in a small interaction can shake them. While pursuing a profession that requires exercising the brain, we cannot afford to be unreceptive to human interaction. Let us all grow together, not pull each other down.

      If you are interested in my personal experiences with depression and the lessons learnt from them, I have written about them here: I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends and Relapse.

      Do you agree with the views expressed in this article? Please let us know in the comments below.

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