A growing awareness of mental health problems on campuses across the country has helped to shed light on the inadequate on and off campus support available to both undergraduate and graduate students. As institutions moved to address these issues, it is important to consider the broader context of the universities and the various academic workers who may also require support. For graduate students near the end of their degrees, the academic labour market itself becomes a source of stress and anxiety.
Putting aside uncertainty about employment and income, finally finishing your dissertation may also open up questions about how you will access health and mental health services. There are a variety of ways that students may access mental health supports while in school, with many universities providing on-campus counselling and support groups. However, more often than not the services are tied to being a student, as funding for these centers is funded through student fees.
The cost of graduating may be further exasperated by precariousness of the jobs available. I willingly admit to delaying completion because the security provided by formal attachment to your department (and TAing) is difficult to give up in the face of unemployment. Accepting a post-doctoral fellowship or sessional work often requires you to move vast distances for a one or two year contact. At one point, I was happily considering moving across the country for an 8 month contract. While navigating our new institutions, cities, and home, we also have to work to secure health care for ourselves and our families, a feat that may take longer than the length of our contracts. I consider myself lucky that I only had to move 3 hours from my family doctor for my fellowship. Although driving 3 hours to address sleep issues was not necessarily ideal for me, or others.
This experience is both universal and highly differentiated. For example PDFs and sessional instructors who are unionized may be entitled to some additional benefits, leading to a stratification within a campus. However, PDFs funded through the major funding bodies, are often left outside of collective agreements which govern other types of PDFs. Yet, we know that mental health is a significant issue for PDFs specifically, and early career academic generally. In a recent national survey of PDFs, 75% reported having negative thoughts, feelings, or conditions related to their mental health.
In sum, there is a problem with continuity of care in support for mental health. Some campuses are responding to these gaps. For example, the University of Ottawa’s on campus health services are organized as a community-based family health team, and as such is accessible to students and employees of the university, as well a local community members. I was part of a negotiating team at Queen’s University which helped to secure guaranteed enrollment through the Queen’s University Family Health Team for Postdoctoral Fellows for members and their dependents. While such institutional changes are important, there are moves to be made at the departmental level as well. Providing moving allowances, housing support, and ensuring that all PDFs are enrolled into additional benefit programs (even if it is not required by a collective agreement) are small but important ways that departments can support emerging scholars. Equally as important, Faculty should take a more active role in supporting precarious workers in their negotiations with universities to ensure these benefits are formally enshrined. When faculty step back from these negotiations, they allow the administration to drive a wedge between workers, pitting us against each other. If there is going to be a meaningful shift in the culture of academia, those with security need to step up and out to demand money and resources for their colleagues. Awareness will only get us part of the way, and far from where we need to be.
Jessica Merolli was the Skelton-Clark Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University from 2015-2017. She recently joined the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Sheridan College. Her research focuses on immigration and citizenship policy, with a recent focus on the international student experience. Details on her research and teaching practice can be found at www.jessicamerolli.com