In the wake of the recent fracas over whether a university should celebrate International Men’s Day or not, I was struck by the following sentence in a book I was reading
‘I learned how much everyone needs to talk about their own past, the forces and experiences that shaped them and how rarely this constant need is satisfied in the competitive, pressurised world, except in moments of emotional crisis.’
Let me explain the how and why of the connection I perceive.
In case you missed it, the University of York intended to celebrate International Men’s Day last month, one of its motivations being to highlight the mental health challenges many men face. As the evidence shows, men are much more likely to commit suicide than women and this is attributed, at least in part, to the fact men seem unable to talk about their feelings as readily as women. That York ended up scrapping their plans I believe was a great shame since there clearly is a need to open up discussions on these difficult topics, but their attempt to publicise the event was sufficiently clumsily phrased that it offended many on campus and beyond, leading to a swift U turn. (See here and here for my discussion of the sorry saga.)
The sentence I quote above, written 30 years before all this unfolded is not intended to be about mental health issues in academia. Far from it. It describes the author’s reaction to the people he met in Paris in 1985 when he was a young biographer on the trail of an early French photographer known as Nadar. Hanging out in Parisian cafes the writer mixed with people who shared their own life stories freely, without regarding what he himself got up to as a biographical sleuth as in the least bit odd. The biographer was Richard Holmes, author of the wonderful ‘Age of Wonder’ describing the interface of literature with the developing sciences at the turn of the 19th century. (If you haven’t already read this book then I would encourage you to do so. It taught me a great deal about a period when science was rapidly expanding – think Banks, Herschel and Davy – and cultural and intellectual values were shifting.) The book the quote appears in is ‘Footsteps’ and is an account of the personal journey this particular biographer makes to get to grips with his subject. The motivation for my reading this book… no I’ll defer expanding on that as I wait to see if the ideas we’re discussing in College with Richard (a Churchill alumnus and Honorary Fellow) and others do or do not bear fruit.
This quote, however, struck a chord with me. We do all need to talk about the forces that shaped us, and the problems that beset us in past and present. In a café with a crowd of semi-strangers we may feel more comfortable spilling the beans than amongst our work colleagues. But, too often the work environment actively discourages admission or discussion of these problems: the supervisor who fails to offer support during the darker moments of thesis-writing; the departmental head who doesn’t want to know why your publication rate has slowed as your elderly parent’s health declines; or the teaching committee that assigns you a new course when you are still recovering from declared ME, to give a few specific examples. And if you are suffering depression you may feel – male or female – that you have to hide it from the powers-that-be or be stigmatised.
Academia does not facilitate chest-bearing. Society collectively does not encourage frank talking by men about their insecurities. We need to change this. We do need to talk about men’s mental health issues and we need to create arenas where those who are suffering feel able to talk. Recalling how men as well as women reacted to my two early posts about impostor syndrome (here and here), where it was striking how men spoke up about the need to speak up – and the lack of places they felt offered them the security to do so – I went back and reread the comments. I pick out a few, all by men.
For instance, look at this:
My wife and I (both academics) have discussed our “impostor” feelings with each other, but neither of us would discuss this anywhere that colleagues might hear us (after all, if *we* don’t think we’re up to grade, our colleagues might just decide we’re right).
It’s not just women, men suffer from this as well, but it’s much rarer for us to discuss it amongst ourselves as I’ve seen women doing. If we do discuss it, it’s generally in the pub, and several beers into the evening.
And, specifically on the mental health issue:
Yes, men have it too. I am a postdoc and will talk about it more now- it definitely stalled my career and I did feel alone, even knowing several other scientists (men and women) who had similar feelings. It’s only recently, now that I’m coming out of my depression/anxiety that I am more willing to open up about it, even though it is uncomfortable. I think I can serve as a good example of what not to do. if given the chance, I would do it in public. It’s an awful feeling that I still wrestle with, but am learning to live with.
So the moral of this is that universities need to do a better job of airing and facilitating discussion of the issues, making sure that men and women have outlets to talk (and not just the pub). By highlighting ‘wellness’ as something of importance to the senior management, both for men and women, perhaps permission can be given to initiate and continue dialogue. Support groups are common for women. Support groups for men – or for people without regard to gender – are much rarer. Yet they are clearly needed too. One doesn’t need to act as if something supporting men is hindering women, or conversely. There are specific actions needed to support women in science (and unfortunately these are still necessary), but there should be space for all of us to be frail human beings facing challenges.
Now, time to stop writing. I want to finish the book by Richard Holmes, an intriguing narrative which makes me reconsider the biographies I have read and the interplay between author and subject….