An Open Letter to the Guardian

2014-04-03 13.45.21

Dear Guardian,

I like you. I do. You are a publication beloved by students. I enjoy the handy news-comic that you include, your crossword is quite good and I am a big fan of Ruby from the Bake-Off. Perhaps it’s because I like you that I’m not angry about your recent coverage of students and mental health. I’m disappointed.

You started out well enough talking about the culture of acceptance that surrounds mental health issues in academia. I would argue that rather than a culture of acceptance, there is a culture of silence. Many of those who experience mental health issues choose not to disclose them because they are afraid of the reaction they might face. I believe that this is a legitimate fear and that many of those who do take the brave step of talking about their mental health are not given the support and understand they deserve. Nevertheless, I was pleased that a national newspaper was talking about this important issue.

It is what happened next that really disappointed me. Next, you published a guide to surviving academia packed full of tips on how to stay “sane” during your PhD. (Actually that’s kind of offensive.) This was closely followed by an article which told us how to avoid procrastination, isolation and perfectionism. Yes, self-care is important and there are steps that we can all take to support our mental health, but what you are doing here, Guardian, is framing mental health issues as a personal failing to look after ourselves and to seek appropriate help. You are trivialising the very real and debilitating issues faced by people every day and reducing them to the level of “Everyone gets stressed! Have you tried going for a walk? Maybe some yoga or this puppy will help!” You are perpetuating the idea that mental health issues are down to some failing on the part of the individual or some flaw in their approach to stressful situations and that is really really unhelpful.

You ask why we aren’t talking about the fact that 1 in 5 students experiences mental health issues? It’s a good question. This is a serious problem. Perhaps we can begin to answer this question if we look at some of the problematic narratives that you yourselves employ. Mental health problems are rife in academia. These issues can be caused by a multitude of interrelated and interacting factors. Genetics, life experience, personality and social factors can all contribute to the development of mental health issues at and stage of life. Frequently, mental health issues do not occur in isolation but are concurrent with physical disabilities or chronic illness. Yet you are addressing them as an individual issue rather than situating them within a wider context.

Eventually, you appealed to your readers to share their stories of mental health issues. We won’t even go into the fact that you published the results under the same name as a suspiciously similar project that I hosted on this blog only a few months ago. What has really disappointed me is your failure to address any of the institutional or contextual issues which contribute to the increased incidence of mental health issues in academia. You are a national newspaper. You are so much more powerful than us little bloggers. You are a position of huge power to ask the universities and research councils some really difficult questions. Why are mental health issues on the rise in academia? What is being done to support the mental health of all students? Why is there no sick pay provision for PhD students? Why is the PhD drop out rate so high and what are you doing to counter it? What kind of training to you provide to your staff to ensure that they are well equipped with students who experience mental health issues? But you are not asking these sorts of questions. Instead, you are placing responsibility for mental health squarely at the feet of those who suffer most from it.

The thing which has disappointed me most is that you have failed to listen to the voices who have been discussing these issues, in some cases, for years. Not only that but you have failed to place mental health issues within the wider context of disability in academia. Many of the issues around access to resources and negotiating necessary adjustments are shared by those students who experience physical disabilities and chronic illness. In choosing to prioritise the voices of one group of students over all of the others who have equally valid and important stories to tell, you are effectively de-legitimising their experiences. You are not only perpetuating the culture of silence, you are actively creating it. Let’s not even pretend that you haven’t seen #AcademicAbleism and PhDisabled. That’s where the real conversation is taking place.

You’ve really let us down, Guardian.

One response to “An Open Letter to the Guardian

  1. Well said! I second everything you say here. I have the good fortune of a group of supportive, understanding lab members, although not so useful supervisors, and even so, at the time I was struggling with chronic stress and chronic illness that was likely partially in caused by that stress, I wasn’t able to be open about it. I am more open about it now but people forget and reduce it to general PhD “grumbling”, underestimating the extent of the damage and the likelihood that it could recur if I do not do everything possible to prevent it. Which is exhausting and stressful in and of itself.

    And yes, there is so much more the Institutions could do to support us. That there is no sick pay and no ability to claim whatever form sickness benefit currently takes because we’re not employees is appallingly neglectful.

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