News Hub

Help! Three Ways We Can Do Our Part in Addressing the Mental Health Crisis in Academia


Three Ways We Can Do Our Part in Addressing the Mental Health Crisis in Academia

C. Russell Y. Cruz
Senior  Editor
Telegraft Hub

Yes we've seen the headlines and heard the stories, but they are worth repeating here. There is a mental health crisis in the workplace.  Academia - far from being the exception - has been (not-so-silently) drowning in this crisis[1] for years, if not more.[2] “We cannot pretend that things are normal in the academy any longer,” writes June Gruber, for Times Higher Education.[3] Mental illness is a growing concern among graduate students,[4] faculty,[5] and university staff.[6]

Left unaddressed, mental health problems in the workforce are very costly. The World Health Organization estimates that mental health disorders like depression and anxiety cost $1 trillion globally from lost productivity.[7] Some argue that the loss of a big part of the workforce, the oft-repeated “great resignation,” is a consequence of this mental health crisis.[8] “As well as ill health and sickness absence, work-related stress has also been associated with reduced levels of job satisfaction, motivation and commitment, increased employee turnover, impaired job performance and creativity, and a range of counterproductive workplace attitudes and behaviours such as cynicism, incivility and sabotage,” write Gail Kinman and Siobhan Wray, for the University and College Union, citing several studies.[9]

For a problem rooted in the very personal, nothing can replace appropriate therapy given by skilled mental health professionals. Many institutions have even made this a priority; however, the obstacles to accessing mental health resources – stigma[10] and lack of awareness[11] – remain.

The specific causes of mental health issues in the academe vary, and certainly the pandemic played a big role in bringing all these to the fore, as it has in other workplace settings. But these issues have been bubbling in academia before the pandemic. Adam Johnson and Rebecca Lester write, “Academic cultures can contribute to, exacerbate, or even instigate mental health challenges for faculty and students alike.”[12] We posit some possible contributors: (1) the hypercompetitive sink-or-swim environment,[13] (2) bullying,[14],[15] and (3) the unrealistic expectations of people used to high levels of achievement.[16]


There are some things that we - as mentors, as peers, as members of the scientific community - can do to help. Not as a substitute for professional help, but something to augment it. By talking about these things and doing these things, we simultaneously decrease the stigma of mental illness and increase awareness for the need to address the crisis. By helping alleviate some of the possible contributing factors to mental illness enumerated above, we can at least make sure that things are not made much worse.

Mind Our Mentees

I cannot overstate the importance of a leader and manager saying, I care more about your well-being than I do about your results.
Adam Grant

It is perhaps the most difficult thing we all have to do - mentor someone. It takes effort to do it right - because it is a relationship that is not bound by the traditional confines of master-slave, employer-employee, even teacher-student. It requires us to view paths to success from another person's eyes, and harness every skill we have to not think about "what's in it for me?”

Unfortunately, difficulties arise when mentorship is subjected to the strains of a hypercompetitive environment like academia. Where funding and papers rely on the continued projection of our laboratory’s productivity, we sometimes (unconsciously, to be sure) transform into someone unrecognizable.

We suddenly start forgetting that our own paths to success cannot be exactly replicated by anyone else. We start doing mentees a disservice as we micromanage their every move --- our fears drive our need to be in total control. We become unnecessarily fearful that our mentees’ failures will reflect poorly on our reputations (which we, rightly or wrongly, believe to be the keys to our success). We forget our task is to listen to our mentees; as each of them will be different from their peers, different from us. We forget the frequent admonition - Don’t treat those who work for you like you want to be treated. Treat them how THEY want to be treated.

The relevance to mental health arises from the fact that - from the mentee's point of view - the mentor's words are given outsized importance. Careless complaints and reactive insults are given more weight. Which means: we may be inadvertently contributing to someone else's anguish. Scratch that; not just someone else - but someone who entrusted their careers to us. Mikhail writes of the organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s interview with Prince Harry, Chief Impact Officer of BetterUp: “When people feel they have the support to grapple with challenges, employees remain more empowered to deal with setbacks, Grant says. This ultimately leads to less turnover in the workplace.”[17] 

There are many instances where our words can cause undue harm, often those we blurt out at times of high anxiety. We need to catch ourselves, and pay closer attention when these arise. The moments we feel compelled to insist they do as we say, remind them about who pays their salary, emphasize that they work for us, for example, are the moments we actually need to remind OURSELVES of our vocation (not job, not task, not mandate).

To be sure, none of us can realistically be the ideal, uncompromised-by-stress mentor all the time. But every step we take towards being more mindful towards our mentees is a step that is magnified a thousand fold in its effects to their career (and life).

So first on this list to combat mental health issues: let's try to take time away from the hypercompetitive arena, and take more time listening to our mentees. Give them our undivided attention when we meet with them. Learn how their unique experiences shape how they view the world. We are in an excellent position to understand their weaknesses --- often more than they can. We are thus in an excellent position to gently nudge them towards a more productive path. 

Protect Our Peers.

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Maya Angelou

There is a reason why "team science" is a buzzword, even if it is not easily rewarded by our individual-focused work cultures. As an aspirational goal, "team science" recognizes that the best work is often the result of a diversity of minds and approaches.

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that sometimes within teams, a distinctly academic form of bullying occurs. Like in most other workplaces, bullies bring people and morale down. Victims of bullying report low confidence, self-esteem, decreased belief in future professional development, and, more commonly, depression and anxiety[18] – indicators of a mental health crisis.

“In academic institutions where bullying occurs in the absence of monitoring or oversight,” writes Bokek-Cohen, citing work done by Keashly,[19] “labs and departments are at risk of developing toxic work environments, which may in turn have implications for the quality of knowledge development, scientifc integrity, and the education of future generations.”[20]

The actions of the academic bully are often more subtle, the mental damage longer lasting. Workplace bullying in the academe manifests as denying another the opportunity to advance, excluding them from collaborations or projects the bully feels they will unduly benefit from, and - in rare instances - outright disrespecting peers. Think of that callous but unhelpful person who insists that we not “take things personally,” at the tail end of tearing people’s competencies down without suggesting anything helpful to the science.

Work culture plays an important role in fostering a toxic, bully-prone atmosphere. Bokek-Cohen again: “A clan culture encourages participative leadership style and enables employees to express their authentic feelings and opinions and enjoy a family-like atmosphere at work. In sharp contrast to this type of culture, participants who rate the culture of the institution where they work as hierarchical report higher rates of academic bullying. The rigid rules, the multiplicity of regulations and laws, and the need to fully submit to the directives of those in authority in the department and the faculty facilitate the creation of working conditions where superiors and colleagues find it easier to bully others.”

An interesting study by a group of psychologists studying workplace behaviors highlight a potential negative side competence in the political sphere. “Politically skilled workers … were more likely to engage in abusive behaviors when experiencing high levels of interpersonal workplace conflict,” write Kisamore et al.[21] The other thing the politically skilled are adept at? Ensuring they get their time in the limelight. This ability to remain in the spotlight adds a devastating second blow to the bully’s victims: they are all too often rewarded by the system. There is a kernel of truth in Indira Gandhi's famous quote. "There are two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit.” One of the more distinct forms of bullying in the academe takes the form of people in power insisting on adding their names to papers or patents, to the detriment of those who actually made the effort relevant to the work.[22]

So next thing on the list: let's be more mindful of our peers, mindful of the often silent cries of those on the margins. Let’s celebrate our collaborators as much as we can, especially the bullied ones. Tell them how they inspired us to do this assay, how their thoughts helped shape our aims, how their highlighting their mentees on slide one helped us to do the same. We can form networks where people can be free to share their concerns without any consequence to their careers. We can call out what is too often unconscious bullying by some - to help make sure their harshness is contained. We can be the voice of those who shy away from the spotlight.

Save Our Sanity.

Taking care of myself doesn't mean 'me first.' It means 'me, too.’
L.R. Knost

Stress and anxiety can wreak havoc on our lives, adding one more count to the mental health crisis statistic. And while a hypercompetitive environment in academia certainly plays a role, unrealistic expectations are equally to blame.

Some of these unrealistic expectations come from others. “Whether your manager is a front-line supervisor or the CEO, every leader occasionally has unrealistic expectations,” writes Liz Kislik for the Harvard Business Review.[23] “But some bosses are unrealistic most of the time. They don’t take into account the facts on the ground, or they habitually refer to their past experiences at other companies rather than to the people and events in the current organization, or perhaps they report to someone who’s even more aggressive or overly optimistic than they are.”[24] For these supervisors, Kislik notes, defiance or even arguing one’s points (despite relevant information) can be dangerous and unsafe. Instead she recommends agreeing with them in principle, but sharing realistic details. She recommends leading open discussions with “Let me share with you a way I think we could do this with the least disruption.”[25]

We also shouldn’t anchor our sense of accomplishment on the approval of others. On the contrary, we should feel empowered to protect our sense of self worth from encroachment. “[E]very single one of us at birth is given an emotional acre all our own,” writes Anne Lamott. “You get one, your awful Uncle Phil gets one, I get one, Tricia Nixon gets one, everyone gets one. And as long as you don’t hurt anyone, you really get to do with your acre as you please. You can plant fruit trees or flowers or alphabetized rows of vegetables, or nothing at all. If you want your acre to look like a giant garage sale, or an auto-wrecking yard, that’s what you get to do with it. There’s a fence around your acre, though, with a gate, and if people keep coming onto your land and sliming it or trying to get you to do what they think is right, you get to ask them to leave. And they have to go, because this is your acre.”[26]

Most unrealistic expectations that cause us mental anguish, however, actually come from ourselves.[27] In the academe especially, we have come to believe our identity rests on our accomplishments, our awards, our success.[28] Some of you reading this will perhaps relate to this more, like me. I was fortunate to have great mentors and wonderful peers, but I suffer from setting unrealistic expectations of what I can do, of who I am. We have to rework our perceptions, rewire our thinking. We are not our grants, our papers, or our ideas. We are not our successes, as much as we are not our failures.

So for the final thing on our list: take care of yourself. Rest your body and your mind. Eat well. Maintain relationships. Be grateful. There is more we can do: this editorial is meant to start these conversations in our programs, and do not even begin to scratch the surface of the body of work that is now been done on mental health in the workplace. For more in depth information, Adam Johnson and Rebecca Lester present a very useful set of “hacks” for maintaining mental health, along with several resources. You can check their insightful work here. In addition, the work of the top rated professor at the Wharton School of Business, Adam Grant, frequently includes discussions of the latest research on mental health in the work place. He also hosts a podcast, Work Life, whose mission, he says, is to make work “not suck.”


What all that we listed have in common: an urgent appeal that we listen more.

If we tamp down on our efforts to constantly project success, we will have time to listen more carefully to those whose careers we support (and who, whether we admit it or not, support our careers in their own way). If we retrain our fine-tuned powers of observation towards the people we work with, we will be able to see the negative effects of bad actors and help protect our peers better. If we temper our emotional reactions to the demands of superiors and subordinates and the system and (more importantly) ourselves, we will be able to listen more carefully to the needs of our mind and our body.

Look carefully into how we serve those entrusted to our care.

Look out for each other.

Look after your own health.





[4] Evans, T., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. et al. Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nat Biotechnol 36, 282–284 (2018).

[5] Hilal A Lashuel (2020) Mental Health in Academia: What about faculty? eLife 9:e54551








[13] Hilal A Lashuel (2020) Mental Health in Academia: What about faculty? eLife 9:e54551

[14] Einarsen, & Nielsen, M. B. (2014). Workplace bullying as an antecedent of mental health problems: a five-year prospective and representative study. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health88(2), 131–142.

[15] Einarsen S, Nielsen MB. Workplace bullying as an antecedent of mental health problems: a five-year prospective and representative study. Int Arch Occup Environ Health. 2015 Feb;88(2):131-42. doi: 10.1007/s00420-014-0944-7. Epub 2014 May 20. PMID: 24840725.



[18] Bokek-Cohen, Y., Shkoler, O. & Meiri, E. The unique practices of workplace bullying in academe: An exploratory study. Curr Psychol (2022).

[19] Mahmoudi, M., & Keashly, L. (2021). Filling the space: A framework for coordinated global actions to diminish academic bullying. Angewandte Chemie, 133(7), 3378–3384. anie.202009270

[20] Bokek-Cohen, Y., Shkoler, O. & Meiri, E. The unique practices of workplace bullying in academe: An exploratory study. Curr Psychol (2022).

[21] Kisamore, J.L., Jawahar, I.M., Ligouri, E.W., Mharapara, T.L., & Stone, T.H. (2010). Conflict and abusive workplace behaviors: The moderating effects of social competencies. Career Development International, 15(6), 583-600. doi: 10.1108/13620431011084420

[22] Bokek-Cohen, Y., Shkoler, O. & Meiri, E. The unique practices of workplace bullying in academe: An exploratory study. Curr Psychol (2022).




[26] Lamott, A. (1980). Bird by bird. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group.

Chicago. Lamott, Anne. 1980. Bird by Bird. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group.