Speaking up: Ending the culture of silence - IndiaBioscience


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In this next article in our mental health series, Zill-e-Anam discusses the culture of silence that prevents many researchers and students from discussing their mental health issues, thus compounding the problem and delaying treatment for those who need it the most.

Do you remember calling in sick to work one day because you didn’t have the energy to wake up and go to the lab, or because you were feeling anxious, depressed or restless, and then coming up with a different ​‘reason’ for it afterwards? This is not uncommon and almost all of us have done something similar at one point or another.

It’s a common observation that a person suffering from mental health-related issues often prefers to suppress these issues instead of seeking help. A whole community of people looking calm and composed on the surface but paddling furiously beneath to stay afloat is what defines ​‘the culture of silence’. Being silent about mental illness in academia (and in general) is one of the leading causes of us not faithfully addressing the issue. Hence, it is important to understand the origins of this culture and why it is so pervasive.

Why does the culture of silence exist?

Multiple concerns, both societal and personal, keep us from acknowledging and speaking about our mental health. The whole idea that mental health disorders are not similar to regular physical ailments and suffering from them is not okay, or that they are a sign of weakness, allows us to brush the conversation under the carpet. Our limited understanding of mental health issues, for e.g. the boundaries between regular sadness and clinical depression, or between day-to-day worrying and generalized anxiety, leads to decisions made in ignorance. If someone luckily does recognize that they are facing difficulties related to their mental health, they are stumped by the questions of where to go and whom to trust. The stigma and embarrassment associated overpower the suffering.

Academia serves as a breeding ground for the culture of silence despite the fact that people here are likely more susceptible to be suffering from mental ailments as compared to society in general. A large part of this non-acceptance comes from the fact that the immediate surroundings, in most cases, do not give equal importance to mental and physical illnesses. Suffering from regular panic attacks, breakdowns, and severe impostor syndrome is often considered normal and a standard part of a research career. Hence, one is asked to ​“just deal with it” or ​“get over it”.

Because of the pervasive idea that ​“everybody goes through it” and ​“the nature of the work demands it”, people in academia tend not to discuss their mental health struggles with the people around them. Setting extraordinarily high, rigid and narrow expectations from oneself and others lets most people believe that until certain very clear lines are crossed, one should not seek support. The constant struggle to maintain the image of a dedicated, satisfied and happy researcher leads many of us to suffer in silence.

Another factor that promotes silence in academic environments is the possibility of negative repercussions upon opening up. Many fear that their work would not be taken seriously, or that peers would not understand, or that they would be accused of ingratitude, or that others would feel uncomfortable to be around them.

What does this silence lead to?

Being silent about mental health disorders leads to a lack of visibility and false perceptions about one being alone in experiencing mental health problems. A dearth of honest communication heightens feelings of isolation, worsening the illness and amplifying the internal crisis. The illness is further exacerbated due to the patient’s reluctance to seek help.

We also need to understand that the cost of silent suffering extends far beyond the sufferer. The persons’ capacity to contribute positively to their environment deteriorates, relationships with family, friends and colleagues are negatively affected, and the upshot of this is an overall unhealthy atmosphere surrounding the sufferer.

What can be done to combat silence?

In order to break the culture of science, building an environment that is open to honest dialogue is the first step. The effort has to be made at an individual, peer, institutional, and policy level.

At an individual level, talking about mental health issues can help us figure out the next step forward and take action on improving the situation. Depending upon the severity of the condition, simple breathing techniques, exercise or yoga may help some, while others may need extensive therapy or medication. But one can only figure out which end of the spectrum they are on if they actively open up about what they are feeling.

An important question here is who to speak to? Family members and good friends can often be the first choice. However, many times this may not be possible due to circumstances or a lack of knowledge/​understanding on the part of one’s loved ones. It is, therefore, a good idea to identify people at your workplace whom you can talk to freely. Talking to peers at an individual level does two things – (1) makes one feel better and lighter, (2) many times the listener might also end up sharing their own experiences making one realize and accept that they are not alone in this. This has a much more profound effect than simply saying that mental health issues are very common these days. Also, one might also end up learning about some practical solutions to common problems.

Immediate surroundings, especially peers and workplace, play an important role in encouraging one to open up. Listening without judging and treating sufferers normally afterwards breaks down many such barriers. Making it clear that self-disclosure will not lead to persecution but admiration can help in normalizing the discussion. Talks, where faculty members open up about their experiences with mental health, can also help in building a more receptive environment promoting students to look into similar signs and seek help if they are suffering. Such discussions can also raise awareness among people who have never suffered from any mental illnesses. This can help them understand that if someone complains, there might be some underlying issue that needs attention.

Principal Investigators (PIs) should take mental health seriously and be trained to identify academic and personal crises appropriately so that in cases where students are not opening up, they can initiate the discussion. Initiatives like Time to Talk can also help us break the culture of silence.

Another major roadblock in opening up about mental health issues and seeking help is the lack of affordable and approachable therapists. For addressing counselling needs, fast-responding medical systems need to be developed. Academic organizations need to bridge the gap between the mere existence of resources and their proactive usage.

At a wider public level, discussions and debates to put physical and mental first aid on equal footing are necessary. This does not mean that stress or depression can be eradicated completely from academia. It is normal for us as human beings. But we need to learn to address and handle it. By ensuring that the discourse on mental health is free and open, discussions leading to policy changes can be promoted, ultimately leading to acknowledgement and protection for those suffering.

Lastly, this article was born out of the fact that someone had the courage to break the silence and said, ​“I suffered from it, I know how it feels, and there is help available.”

Previous articles in the Mental Health Series:

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://indiabioscience.org/columns/opinion/speaking-up-ending-the-culture-of-silence