In the grateful academic’s first guest blog, I am thrilled to introduce Dr Zoë Ayres, an analytic scientist and mental health advocate and co-founder of voicesofacademia.com.
In this blog, Zoe talks about her advocacy work and how it is critical to acknowledge that things aren’t always ‘positive’ in academia, and that by acknowledging the challenges and working to change systems for the better, we can support a happier, more successfully academic journey.
Advocacy /ˈadvəkəsi/ noun
the act or process of supporting a cause, person, place or thing
“You are misrepresenting academia.”
“You need to focus on the positives more.”
Advocating for improving academic mental health support can be tough, particularly when I get met with comments like these. They can make me stop and question the work that I do at times and make me wonder if I cause more harm than good. As an anxious person, these thoughts can weigh heavily on the bad days. Thankfully, I routinely receive messages from people all over the globe saying that I have helped them and I am reminded that I do make a positive difference, and these vastly outweigh the comments that I am “too negative”.
My mental health advocacy work focuses primarily on talking about the systemic issues within academia that can impact mental health of those in the academy. This means talking openly about things like bullying and harassment, racism, the culture of overwork and the hyper-competition that researchers have to fight tooth and nail to survive in. Whilst these topics can be heavy, I certainly do not see discussing them as “overly negative”. In fact, pretending that the academic system always works well and that no-one struggles can have huge ramifications, ultimately gaslighting individuals into thinking that if they are struggling in academia that it is all their fault, and not that the system itself needs improving. There is nothing positive in this: all it does is drive those talented individuals out of academia entirely.
What often gets underestimated is the power and positivity in talking about the struggles that people might encounter in the academy. It helps individuals realise they are not alone, breaking down feelings of isolation, and creates a community for people to come together and support one another. Being honest about academia also means that we can be prepared for the challenges we might face. Further, realising that those around us experience ups and downs and are not just robots can help us be more empathetic to our colleagues, and in doing so also enables us to give ourselves more grace too.
It can also all too easily be forgotten from places of privilege is that one person’s “complaining” is actually them highlighting the injustices they face. For those of us positions of privilege we must listen, and we must act. Working towards a compassionate, understanding research culture where everyone can thrive – I cannot think of anything more positive than that.
My three top tips for staying well in academia
I cannot consolidate all my advice on how to stay well in academia, but here are a few things I wish I had known before starting my academic journey:
About the author:
Dr Zoë Ayres is a Senior Scientist in the water industry and is also a mental health advocate, working towards improving academic mental health. Zoë is the author of a series of mental health infographic posters – find out more at www.zjayres.com. You can also find her on Twitter @zjayres.