Academic Anxiety: Time to Talk Day

Today is ‘Time to Talk’ day, part of a campaign to end stigma and discrimination against mental illness. It has been organized by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, with funding from the Department of Health, Comic Relief and the Big Lottery Fund. The campaign aims to normalize talking about mental illness, which includes a range of conditions such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, OCD and schizophrenia. By asking people to open up about their own mental state, as well as reminding them to be supportive of others, the campaign is aiming to highlight that mental health, just like physical health, needs to be given suitable attention.

1 in 4 people experience mental health problems in any given year. 1 in 10 young adults will experience a mental health issue, and many people continue to work normal jobs despite their conditions. In 2009, the total population in England and Wales aged 16 or over was just over 43 million. It was estimated that about one in six of the adult population had a significant mental health problem at any one time, meaning more than 7 million people had some experience of mental illness.

I’ve always been a nervous person. But over the last few years I’ve developed an anxiety disorder, something I’m often reluctant to talk about. Part of why this campaign is so important to me is that like many others, I’ve felt that discussing the issue would make people view me in a negative light. Yet while researching the campaign I was shocked to find that around 16% of people in the UK are affected by anxiety. I have regular panic attacks and suffer from anxiousness and worry that stay at high/overwhelming levels for long periods of time. Difficultly sleeping and chest pains are also a regular part of everyday life. Working in academia isn’t exactly beneficial to this- rejection, criticism and constant self-doubt are part of the job description. My anxiousness also means I can’t develop the ‘thicker skin’ so many academics think is necessary in light of these traits, which is why it is so important to ensure that more and more people are being nice in academia.

Yet for all the journal articles turned down, job applications rejected and the work/life imbalance, lecturing is a release for my anxiety. Standing infront of an audience and speaking as an expert is the only time I truly feel relaxed-  my doubts are nowhere to be seen. Trying to control my condition is a constant battle and doing what I love as a job is undoubtedly helping more than hindering, despite the pressures. In public I smile a lot, laugh, make jokes and don’t take myself too seriously. None of my students or co-workers at Northumbria would assume anything was wrong as a result. That is why the campaign is so important- it offers a chance to break through assumptions and really ask each other how we are doing.

Some of the great materials the campaign sent me

To do my bit for the campaign, I organized an ‘open door’ session at my university. I emailed Northumbria’s History undergraduates, postgraduates and staff, opening my office hours up to anyone who felt they wanted to talk about any issues they were having, or simply wanted a quick 5 minute chat to break up a busy day. The aim of the campaign is to offer a space for discussion. Undergraduates especially can feel periods of isolation and stress, and I was conscious that often they do not feel they have somewhere to turn. First-year students adjusting to university life and third-year students juggling essay writing, dissertation research and job hunting were particularly on my mind. I gave my third-year students some free goodies (provided by the charity) and talked to them about the importance of mental health. I also left posters, teabags and leaflets in the staff and post rooms of the History department, helping to raise awareness. Hopefully this has meant more people will begin to have proper discussions about mental health and the need to be more mindful of our own mental welfare.

Anyone wanting to find out more about the campaign can do so here: