Cecily Jones |
Mental health problems among students has reached crisis proportions, according to recent reports[i]. While most research studies have focused on the mental health and well-being of undergraduate students, anecdotal evidence suggests that today’s postgraduates face unprecedented pressures that make them equally vulnerable to poor mental health. The stress points are many – multiple submission deadlines for super-competitive funding bids, research proposals, conference abstracts and papers, thesis chapters, managing relationships with sometimes ambivalent supervisors, pressure to publish before submission, facilitating undergraduate seminars and the seemingly never-ending cycle of setting and marking assessments. And then there’s the psychological side –feeling isolated, imposter syndrome, loss of motivation, low confidence, uncertainties about the value and validity of their research subject, and future career prospects. PhD students deal with all of this while struggling to maintain a wholesome balance between research and family/social life.
These problems – and more – are experienced by postgraduates, but institutional racism, discrimination, and hegemonic white privilege make universities toxic spaces for Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students and faculty. So pervasive does racism on camps appear to be that over half the students in an NUS survey reported having experienced racism and racist discrimination. And a quick look at blogs and other postings by BAME students on social media such as Twitter and Facebook reveal high levels of frustration arising from everyday micro-aggressions structuring their interactions with white students and faculty. Others talked of the unbearable whiteness of university campuses, lack of cultural and ethnic diversity, of exclusion from student networks, of isolation and being ‘the only one’ in seminar groups and halls of residences, of biased faculty who unfairly graded and/or challenged the authenticity of their work, of supervisors who proved hostile to critical race or non-western intellectual traditions, questioned their intellectual capacity for postgraduate study. Recent media efforts to stoke anti-Black outrage in response to BAME student led Decolonizing the Curriculum movement, which called for critical discussions of ethnocentric curriculum dominated by western white male intellectuals, the support and outcomes for BAME students, exposed the academic racial fault line.
Not surprisingly many BAME students in the NUS survey described their academic careers as a period fraught with undue stress, and inadequate support, so that some intermitted from, or abandoned their studies altogether. Again, UK data on postgraduate attrition rates does not indicate ethnicity, but USA evidence suggests 47% completion rates for African-Americans, 10% lower than white peers. Senior Lecturer and the University of Manchester’s Academic Lead for Equality Diversity and Inclusion, Dr Dawn Edge, argues that racism, discrimination, adversity and alienation are key contributors to the problems encountered by BAME students. Dr. Edge went onto state that “People from BAME communities tell us that the constant stress of racism and surviving in often hostile environments can trigger mental illness’. Furthermore, severe stress is known to contribute to, or exacerbate, pre-existing medical conditions prevalent among BAME groups, such as TT diabetes, and sickle cell anemia. Managing multiple competing demands is a cocktail for vulnerability and potential mental illness
Even where universities provide supportive counselling, students point to their failure to understand, and to be responsive to the structural barriers and cultural attitudes held by many BAME communities towards mental health – for instance, the concept of depression is unknown among some ethnic groups, and so some students were unable to recognize the symptoms. Yet others talked of cultural taboo and stigma surrounding mental health, while others avoided mental health services because of racialized stereotypes that associated drug use with poor mental health. Many UK students were aware of the troubled historical relationship between the mental health sector and the black communities, evidenced in the over representation of BAME people sectioned within psychiatric institutions. As well, some support services failed to recognize the heterogeneity of BAME postgraduates and hence their different needs – for instance, international BAME postgraduates had to adjust to a new environment and new pedagogical cultures, while for BAME LGBTQ students, living at the intersections of race and sexuality, compounded the problems of living in heteronormative white spaces.
So, what steps can BAME postgraduate students take to complete the doctoral journey with wellbeing and mental health intact? How do you maintain your creativity, motivation and passion for your thesis amid the emotional, physical and psychological stresses?
- Recognize the symptoms: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/depression/symptoms/#sign Remember – stress isn’t in itself a sign of poor mental health – though if not addressed, it can lead to more serious problems such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression
- Don’t feel embarrassed about seeking support from university counselling services. Counsellors are there to help you overcome difficulties and suggest strategies for resolving your problems.
- Seek support from, and offer support to, other postgraduate students
- Join your university’s black students’ societies. If you’re finding it hard to meet other BAME students on campus, search out opportunities for connecting with black postgraduate networks outside of your university e.g. some subject associations or conferences have streams for BAME postgraduates
- Become a member of one or more of the on-line support groups for BAME students, e.g. Black PhD Network, Black British Academics. Some groups have open membership, while others are more specific e.g. women only, LGBTQ only, etc.
- Approach an empathetic academic whom you respect and ask if s/he would be willing to act as a mentor. A good mentor doesn’t have to share your social background (race, sexuality, religion etc) and you may find that BAME faculty may be too busy to offer the level of support you require.
- If you are a member of a religious group, seek support from an understanding religious organization or the non-denominational chaplain at your university or community
- Self-care is critical! Pencil in some guilt free Me Time in your diary and treat it with the same respect that you do other life commitments…go for a daily walk, run, gym-time, ‘treat’ whatever — Support and advice will help you with manage stress, but self-care is essential to recovering your emotional and mental wellbeing.
That racism is bad for mental health is clear, but what remains to be known is the extent of its impact on BAME postgraduates and faculty, whose mental health is compromised by the grit and resilience required to strive and successfully survive in predominantly white institutions.
Cecily Jones holds a PhD in Sociology (Goldsmiths College, University of London), an MA in Race and Ethnic Studies (University of Warwick,) and a BA in Sociology (Sussex University). She has published widely on the intersections of gender, and race, (especially on whiteness), social class and sexuality in Caribbean and US slave societies, and more recently on enslaved childhood in the Caribbean. She is a former Associate Professor of the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick, where she continues to hold Associate Fellow status, and more recently was a Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, Mona Unit, University of the West Indies, in Jamaica. You can get in touch with here on twitter.
[i] Thorley C (2017) Not By Degrees: Improving student mental health in the UK’s universities, IPPR. www.ippr.org/publications/not-by-degrees