One of the hardest things about hearing about a PhD student who was harassed by a lecturer, and who then committed suicide while the lecturer kept his job, was that I wasn’t surprised. It’s not that I didn’t think the story was horrendous – I did. It’s that like most graduate students I am reminded on a daily basis – in corridors and, increasingly, in the media –
of the degree of suffering, neglect and abuse in academic life. It seemed natural to me, almost, that an abusive faculty member should exist and go unchallenged – and that a PhD student should remain unsupported and invisible while becoming suicidally depressed. This was congruous with my experience of many academic norms and logics today. Although this is an extreme example, it’s not unique: according to this Guardian article, student suicide rates are rising (and, it argues, this rise is linked to the recession).
The nature and extent of mental illness and suffering in academia is the subject of a recent wave of attention on blogs like Nadine’s, in the mainstream press (like the the Guardian’s Academics Anonymous series), and on social media. On sites like Academia is Killing my Friends and Disabled Philosophers, people are sharing their personal stories of suffering in academia – often at the intersection of abuse and neglect with mental illness or disability. Concerned with the negativity and feared determinism of this discussion, others used #myphdsupervisor to call for positive stories about academic experiences (a less generous reading might call some of this a backlash) and suggestions for strategies to ‘survive’ the PhD (google these, there’s too many). All of these discussions are absolutely essential, break an entrenched silence, and make me hopeful about the members of and future possibilities for my community. I am grateful to everyone who has facilitated or participated in them so far.
Here, however, I want to link mental illness and these individual experiences to the broader processes of neoliberalism in academia. The increasingly neoliberal organization of academic life creates and exacerbates experiences of mental illness and suffering, as well as making it difficult for people who are suffering to access support (or even just academia). The prevalence of mental illness in academia is not a wholly individual phenomenon, nor is it separable from the institutions in which individuals are embedded. As such, our responses to it need to go beyond how individuals might be ‘included’ or ‘treated’, or how they themselves might take responsibility for ‘surviving’ university life. (Margaret Price’s Mad at School is essential reading on some of these issues from a Disability Studies perspective – her focus is on neurodiversity and mental disability, however, not neoliberalism or suffering more generally).
When I talk about neoliberalism in academic life, I am talking about the marketisation of higher education, including the understanding of value and people in purely economic terms. Students have become consumers and proto-workers: purchasing knowledge (now skills and expertise) as a commodity in service of future employment. Universities stratify students in preparation for their varied entries into the market, helped by differing tuition fees which mark the value of a particular institution’s product. A decrease in state funding of education has resulted in increasing fees, partnerships with industry, and a rising contingent of short-term, part-time, transient and precarious university employees pressured to do more with less. The value of an academic worker is measured in the production of research output, hence ‘publish or perish’. Stanley Fish gives an introductory overview of this process.
The processes of neoliberalism connect people, activities and conditions across all levels and areas of universities: undergraduate students, postgraduate students, adjunct/ hourly-paid faculty and permanent faculty (as well as administrators, service workers and funders – although I don’t discuss these here).
Undergraduate students are paying more money and are increasingly anxious about employment and loan repayment (especially since the economic crash). They live in a world that values career success above all else and this is confirmed by universities’ emphases on employability and treating students as consumers. They are then faced with an increasingly overworked, undertrained and underpaid teaching staff, many of whom are postgraduate students, tasked with responding to these needs. Postgraduate tutors are working impossibly long and unpaid hours, sometimes for less than minimum wage or for free, in need of both the cash and the experience to bolster their own employability (see this report by NUS).
This situation often generates anxiety and resentment between these two sets of students who lack the resources to create a mutually beneficial relationship. As an anonymous postgraduate teacher describes, the neoliberal conditions of work in universities mean that someone is going to suffer in this relationship, and this suffering has potentially serious consequence for mental health:
Every time I teach a class I decide deliberately whether I am going to do loads of work for free, or not do enough work and teach badly. I am constantly stressed either way. Either I’m overworked and failing to stick up for myself, or showing incompetence in front of students and colleagues and maybe not getting asked back. As my anxiety worsens and more people like me are doing less work with more competition for it, I am less and less able to produce the education or ‘product’ students are promised in exchange for their rising fees. (“Academia is Killing my Friends“)
For postgraduates, the pressures of fees, loans and future employment are coupled with these precarious working conditions, and often further compounded by difficult relations with faculty. Like PhD students, faculty often lack the resources – time and training – to engage meaningfully with students. Teaching becomes, effectively, a barrier to the productivity of research output. This is not only frustrating for faculty, it is also damaging for students.
This is especially dangerous for PhD students, who are often connected to an institution by only one or two supervisors – with the power to make or break students’ experiences. Sadly, sometimes this includes direct abuse or neglect of supervisees, which in turn creates and perpetuates the mental health problems associated with trauma and abuse. This is starkly illustrated by the postgraduate suicides described above, but more commonly results in students suffering silently or dropping out (See Stavvers’ reasons for quitting, this student’s experience of anxiety, colonialism and silence, the NUS report Silently Stressed, and the Thesis Whisperer asking why students quit). Most often, perhaps, it includes no ill will on the part of the likely well-meaning supervisor, but simply a lack of time, training or energy to engage fully with students as people – or even just their work.
PhD students rely on faculty for supervision, references and employment. In an ableist culture where productivity is valued above all else, this makes it risky for them to speak up about their mental health problems or to take time off. A professor might be truly sympathetic to a supervisee’s depression, for example, but when it comes to hiring a research assistant, they ‘need’ someone who will work long and unpredictable hours – after all, they are trying to reduce their own already crushing workload, not add to it with interpersonal challenges that they are ill-equipped to handle. When it comes to supervising that student, they might subconsciously become a little less rigorous – after all, it reasons that that student is unlikely to progress to success in neoliberal academia and that the resources needed for rigour would be ‘better’ be placed elsewhere. This is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mental illness, employment and the PhD interact.
To be clear, there are plenty of faculty who clearly value knowledge, pedagogy and students in their own right, and who go above and beyond to provide life-changing support, mentorship, supervision and teaching of all kinds. I myself have experienced this kind of supervision. But the fact remains that they have to ‘go above and beyond’ their working conditions in order to do so, often at personal cost to themselves. Faculty are also suffering the effects and regulation of neoliberalism in academia. This is especially true for adjunct and sessional faculty who lack job security and benefits (including sick pay and health-care in the US). Imagine the stress of never knowing what your address, pay or time-table will be, or if you’ll even have a job, in six months time. Combine that with the working conditions described above – and, say, with a family to support. Now imagine having, or even gaining, a mental illness that is caused by stress. The proportion of the academic workforce that works like this is more than a third (see Vicky Blake’s account) and, as shown by the cultural industries and by supermarkets, it’s the ideal workforce for the neoliberal institution: cheap, disposable, and entirely at the mercy of the market and its beneficiaries. Everyone should read Rosalind Gill’s, Breaking the Silence, for a truly excellent analysis of this.
Academics with permanent jobs or tenure are hugely privileged but no less governed by this situation. Of course, neoliberal academia has already done its best to prevent scholars with mental disabilities reaching this stage at all (‘thankfully’ as the stories on The New Academic show, it’s only been partially successful). Many have, however, sacrificed building a relationship, family or other social network due to the demands of an academic career. They experience expectations that can only be fulfilled through working twelve hour days, most days a week, and often in an absence of personal support or relief. Funding applications as well as research assessment exercises and other forms of surveillance have ensured that any potentially disruptive aspects of their work have been removed, with direct implications or ‘impact’ rewarded with promotion and funding (often this means positive impacts for neoliberal industry and government). That is, the space of academic freedom supposedly secured by tenure is increasingly narrow (see anything by Henry Giroux). This might include less space for critiques of neoliberalism, including its impacts on mental health – but also for academics to do work that is personally fulfilling in ways that go beyond their CVs. In fact, it seems like many senior faculty I talk with have almost no time to do their own research work at all and are outsourcing to students, further complicating that working relationship.
Given all this, it was no surprise to me that a student was able to become depressed to the point of suicide during her PhD, with no intervention or support from her academic community. There is a common saying among teachers that ‘we’re not therapists’ – and we’re not – but what does it mean if this degree of suffering can go unnoticed and unchallenged, or even be worsened by our community? Maybe she ‘slipped through the cracks’ amidst busy workloads, stressed staff and diminished student support services (and cuts to healthcare more generally). Certainly she was sexually harassed by a member of faculty, told other staff in her department, but received no assistance. And he, of course, ‘slipped through the cracks’ in a different way – because it takes work and risk to challenge our colleagues and superiors. It is easier and safer for us to let students and staff suffer, or leave, alone. Easier and safer, that is, within the neoliberal terms of our workplace. Many of us know senior academics who relate inappropriately to students, or have experienced that behavior ourselves. But instead of providing clear lines of recourse, our conditions of work mean we are forced to choose constantly between our job security and our ethics in deciding how we respond.
And of course, the story doesn’t end here. This student was a member of my group of friends, some of whom are students. Although we were not close, I have experienced first-hand its knock-on effects: grieving and further mental suffering, missed work and difficult conversations with supervisors and other superiors, no support, and so-on. My own terrible sinking feeling of confirmation. My lack of surprise. All in an already difficult and resource-depleted moment in our lives. It’s made our community feel a little less safe. But it’s also made some of us feel a little more angry and attuned to the violence of today’s neoliberal academia.
Yet, I’m still hopeful. I still regularly encounter students and staff at all levels who are engaging with the university in all kinds of humane, critical and creative ways. Academia is not completely doomed or determined by external forces, nor are we as people defined only by our locations in academia. Those with privilege and authority are still responsible for their uses of power. We still need individual stories and survival strategies. But we also need to know that mental health and neoliberalism are interrelated in a vast array of different ways, and that those concerned with one must necessarily be concerned with the other.