For a few days I was thinking about how difficult the academy can be for people’s mental health. I am doing a doctoral thesis, so these questions inevitably concern me. And just last week a very interesting article was published in this newspaper that accounts for the abuse and labor exploitation suffered by doctoral students who have scholarships, at the hands of their thesis directors. It is an unfortunate and recurring reality in academic life.
When talking about doctoral students in Spain, it is usually associated with the idea of a scholarship or funding. However, there is another reality that is rarely talked about and that is that of those who carry out research with precariousness on their backs and how the academy, although it benefits from it, does little to facilitate the conditions of those who have to do it. Not all people who do a doctorate in Spain have a scholarship; One of them writes to them and, like me, many more, who are not from wealthy families who can pay for our studies. Many of us have to work and do a thesis (and in my case a thousand economic adventures that I would not finish telling now). But also, work as much as possible because if we are not Spanish nationals we are also limited by the documentation.
No one can think and produce intellectually without ensuring minimum material conditions, we know that in theory. But paradoxically, for the academy it is as if one thing could be separated from the other. I know very close cases that when they commented on this in their faculties, they responded with things like “why do you come here if you don’t have money, don’t come”. Or when they requested support with things as simple as a study space -which should be the minimum that a University guarantees a doctoral student, at least an adequate space in the library-; They responded with resounding refusals, suggesting that he then study at home, when whoever requested it had to share a house with several people.
A few days ago I talked about this topic on my Instagram (I’m more into that social network than Twitter), about how hostile the academy could be for mental health. I received several testimonies from people who in different countries and areas of knowledge had the same opinion and told me about their experiences. One of them told me that during her master’s studies she suffered from depression due to the difficulty she had in reconciling his economic situation with her studies, to the point that he did not even have anything to eat. That she had always felt guilty for not meeting academic expectations. I have in my close circle people who have spent years working on things far below their professional profile in order to pay for their doctorate. Also people who have not yet overcome the trauma of anxiety and stress (which has affected their physical health as well), which left them having to meet high academic standards, while at the same time having to work like any other person who did not conduct an investigation.
I have had the immense fortune of having a director who has understood all my economic and emotional conditions, I would not have been able to continue on this path if it had not been for his support (thanks, Carlos). But this is not the fate of many. A few months ago I heard a professor talk about a doctoral student whose thesis she was directing and who had had an episode of depression months before defending it and she told him: “But why do you get depressed? to come out with this nonsense, finish that thesis now”. Just like that teacher, there are a lot of people who believe that one chooses a depression and that one is to blame for not being “strong” enough, as if that is what mental health is all about.
I came to this memory because another of the testimonials that came to me on Instagram said “I don’t work for the academy because I can’t produce as they expect.” She is a person who lives with a mental health diagnosis and who is a writer, but she could not continue academic life, because whether we like it or not, the academy is able-bodied, she is only served by a type of person who fits into the “normal” for to be able to produce in the numbers and times required.
In addition to this, there is a generalized idea that in order to advance in the academy one must show power, make the hierarchy visible, this materializes, for example, with dismissive comments, offensive criticism of the work of other researchers, which can reach the humiliation but that are protected by the concept of “academic rigor”. There are several cases that have come to light publicly and in the field of workplace harassment in Spain. This is a very patriarchal idea, subjugation through the use of power. So imagine if it is also about exercising that power over women, but also racialized and migrant women in academia, who to top it off investigate gender issues (yes, I also say this from experience). But this is not a matter of the Spanish academy, but of the academy in general. This was confirmed by testimonies that came to me from Latin America and the United States.
And yes, surely right now you may be assailed by the idea that this happens in many other areas and that it is a matter of the system. But it turns out that the academy is the quintessential space for reflection and analysis and these things should be questioned and avoided at all costs. What kind of academy is being built in a place where people are six times more likely to develop mental health conditions compared to the rest of the population? Or where 80% have high levels of emotional exhaustion, as is the case in Spain. But we would also have to ask ourselves, how is the academy shaping up? Only with those who have the money to access it or the “luck” to have a scholarship and also those who fit the mold to enter, to continue there and not get sick in the attempt?
The academy should not be a place where systems of oppression are reproduced. A place for a few, one of privilege and disease. It cannot be that she wants and can question everything, except herself.