The ‘great resignation’ in academia and the larger mental health crisis

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This is a guest post by Rob Clark.

Higher rates of faculty departing from academia is a reflection of the ongoing mental health crisis.

The mental health crisis is not unique to higher education, but instead is a systemic issue being felt across all walks of life. For example, dramatically increased rates of depression are attributed to the COVID19 pandemic, with about 1 out of 10 people reporting depression symptoms prior to 2019 and up to 1 out of 3 people in 2022. Similarly, symptoms of anxiety mood disorders are up to 47% in the US. In the U.S. this problem is exacerbated by a fatigued and overwhelmed healthcare system. In my own experience, it has been exceptionally difficult to get timely mental healthcare – – It took me 16 months to get an appointment with a prescribing psychiatrist. The counseling center I currently use has a waiting list of over 50 patients. I currently live in a densely population area with decent healthcare system and the situation is baffling.

Has the ‘great resignation’ hit academia?” is fundamentally about faculty leaving their posts in higher education to pursue other careers. On Twitter and the Facebook group “The Professor Is Out”, there are many first hand accounts of personal decisions to leave higher ed. Postdocs, adjuncts, tenured faculty, professors from both R1s and teaching colleges, all fall into this very broad ‘great resignation’ bin. According to a Nature 2021 survey, a quarter of mid-career scientists across academic and non-academic posts expressed ‘extreme dissatisfaction’ with their career.

Dissatisfaction with pay is an easy metric to quantify, but there are other more personal motives and these are readily visible on social media. In many cases stories include examples of toxic work environments, dysfunctional leadership, and a lack of support for underrepresented groups or people with disabilities. With the stress and chaos of COVID19, it is no coincidence that these issues reached a breaking point. Inhospitable working conditions are unacceptable, pandemic or no pandemic. For people with mental health challenges, these situations are a nightmare. If institutions want to hold onto good people, they need to take action to address these issues.

However, there are also stories of people who decided to leave even though they liked their position. There are indeed some academic positions that actually do pay competitive salaries and provide decent benefits. There are places with supportive work environments and supportive colleagues. If this were the case, why would someone leave a job? To the outsider they may appear a perplexing group.

I considered myself in this “good jobs” category. I was in a department & university that I liked quite a bit. I still had to make the difficult decision to leave. My spouse and I were too far from our family support network, and it wasn’t something that was compatible with my health during the pandemic. Prior to making this decision, I worked closely with a psychiatric professional to address significant mental health problems that I couldn’t resolve with medication. Together, we decided that relocating near family would be the best course of action. By May 2021 I had left my post but retained an affiliate status. I now work primarily as a data scientist in the private sector. While this change has not been entirely smooth sailing, I’ve made more progress in improving my health in the last year than I had in the prior decade. Leaving academia gave me an opportunity to get better. I share this knowing that I am not the only academic who made this type of life decision between 2019 and today. The reasons may be different, but the motivation to improve mental health is a story I hear again and again.

If you look at the larger discussion of the ‘great resignation’, mental health is one of the key talking points. Employers have taken notice and included better mental health support policies. I’m talking beyond my area of expertise, but so far I have found the data insufficient to understand this problem. Every career has its own challenges for people with disabilities. To this point, there are many challenges in higher education that everyone just lives with, but I think we discount how difficult these conditions are for people with disabilities and/or mental health challenges. There are structural or cultural problems that cannot be easily solved with university policy changes. In higher education we deal with frequent relocation, high demands on productivity, shrinking grant funding, drawn out manuscript reviews, a competitive job market, and so on. Anyone else in higher education could populate a list of grievances much longer than this! It is a stressful and uncertain career even when things are going well. The problem seems intractable.

The discussion about the mental health crisis and ‘great resignation in academia’ should revolve around two questions: What are the larger social changes that we can advocate for? What is within our power to change within the institution itself? For example, access to mental health services is a major barrier and has been exacerbated during the pandemic. Poor access is even more problematic in rural areas where many large universities reside. I don’t know if it’s within the university’s ability to solve this problem (beyond advocacy) since it is a larger social dilemma. However, universities in rural areas could invest and expand mental health services to faculty & staff knowing that access is restricted in their area. Conversely, universities cannot entirely control the disruptions to mental & physical health caused by the pandemic, but they can provide institutional support such as tenure clock extensions or clear, supportive medical leave policies.

Such a discussion may lead to some important realizations where there is focus on what is working and what isn’t working. And maybe there needs to be some acceptance that this issue is somewhat out of our control and acceptance and advocacy are the best courses of action. Higher education as a whole still needs to do whatever is in its power to make a supportive space for people with mental health disabilities. However, despite best efforts people still may want to leave. That is OK. We should empower people to make decisions that are best for their mental health. Finally, the people who are part of the ‘great resignation from academia,’ even though they are now outside the institution, they still have something to add to the discussion.

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