It’s all academic: the inextricability of the academic and the pastoral

05072013199Hi gang! How are you all doing? I’m going to take a break from my busy schedule of watching Law and Order and waiting for someone to offer me a job to write a little something for you. This is in part inspired by this fantastic piece over on PhDisabled about disability as an academic issue and part inspired by an email I found in my in-box about supervisor training. I want to talk about how mental health reaches its tendrils into everything we do and that it is unhelpful and unhealthy to relegate mental health issues to the purely pastoral, and suggest that mental health awareness should be an integral part of supervisors’ training.

I want to tell you a not very exciting story about my tooth. My back left wisdom tooth is coming in and it hurts. A lot. It’s thankfully feeling a lot better now but for the past few days I have been popping painkillers, ODing on Bonjela and generally feeling sorry for my self. I haven’t wanted to leave the house, to run, to talk to anyone, to work on the book review I’m supposed to be writing. I’m knackered and grumpy and I only want to eat soft food with the one good side of my mouth and watch terrible crime dramas. This got me thinking about how one little tooth can have such a great impact on my overall health. How much greater is the effect on our overall health when our mental health is not great? Mental health is sometimes talked about as a “whole body disorder” and I can certainly attest to the loss of energy, crappy immune system and general exhaustion that come along with a bout of depression. Mental health affects you physically and there is no way that its effects will not ripple out into your work. We try as hard as we can to keep our low mood at home on the sofa. Sometimes it spills out onto the streets, as we walk home, but we make damn sure that it doesn’t  spill over into our work. Sorry guys, but it just doesn’t work. Your mental health, good or bad, cannot be separated from the way that you approach and carry out your work.

Nobody gets through three-to-four years of their life without something happening. A PhD takes a long time. We’re all adults and we all have lives outside the lab. Things happen. People die, people get sick, people get pregnant, they start new relationships, they end relationships, they get married, they get divorced, a cowboy roofer messes them about for over a year. Things happen. To everybody. And they impact on our work. Whether the things that happen to us result in a traditional diagnosable mental health conditions or not, they do affect our health and our work. Our mental health impacts every part of our lives, and we can’t leave it outside the office door or shrug it off as we shrug on our lab coat.

We CANNOT separate the academic from the pastoral. Now I am all for increasing pastoral support for PhD students. It’s so important for us to have access to counselors, PhD conveners, advisers of studies, disability services and our supportive  family of PhD peers. However, none of these are the people who are in a position to help us to deal with the fallout when our health begins to encroach on our work. Now I’m going to tread carefully here, but our supervisors have the greatest influence on our academic lives and are possibly the least prepared to deal with students experiencing mental health issues. I know that some of you have fantastic supervisors who have been really supportive but, from my conversations with others, I know that some of you have had somewhat different experiences. And I don’t think that’s ok. As the main point of contact and the most important relationship for any student, it has to one where students feel that they are able to talk openly and truthfully.

All supervisors should be offered mental health and disability awareness training. I recently found an email in my in-box about a training morning for supervisors in the undisclosed university of which I may-or-may-not still be part (why do they send me these emails? It’s like poking me with a pointy stick). The morning of training was offered, with a note that attendance at such training is mandatory every 5 years, focusing on important matters such as quality and researcher development, followed by a discussion session. At no point in this training was there any planned discussion of student wellbeing, supporting students who experience difficulties or allowances that may be made for students. I am absolutely not saying that University of <Undisclosed> is particularly bad in this respect. I’d imagine that similar sessions are run up and down the country. What I am saying is that supervisors are ill-equipped to support students who run into difficulties and that these difficulties are often written off as pastoral and not relevant to work. Just about every university has a counseling service which is capable of planning and delivering this sort of training, as are many charities. Just maybe this sort of training would help supervisors to support their students and prevent them from struggling and dropping out. It’s worth thinking about, anyway.

Well, thanks for reading. You might agree with me, you might not. I’d love to hear your opinions, especially from supervisors who would welcome this sort of training or who think that it would be a waste of time. Remember to chat to each other, look out for your PhD family and here is a little reminder that I definitely needed today, everything is going to turn out okay in the end.

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