mental health

Academic life in a crisis: Counting academic blessings part 2

Back in May, the world was a very different place, and having commented on mental health challenges in higher education, I decided to write a post to balance things up a bit, counting my academic blessings.

Just a couple of weeks ago (11th March 2020), a catastrophe struck, affecting everyone, everywhere. The World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic of coronavirus (COVID-19) and governments began planning for utter disaster.

As someone in a leadership role in Higher Education, like many others, I was beginning to think about how this might impact on learning and teaching, on students, and on my colleagues. On Friday 13th March 2020 I emailed my Head of School with information about what we might need to do should we need to move teaching online. On Monday 16th March, when our School Management Team met (in person), it became apparent that those contingency plans were going to be put into effect very quickly. By Tuesday 17th March, we were teaching online, students were going home, and colleagues were scurrying around trying to work out just exactly how to manage their personal lives, their work, their students, and completely shift their mode of teaching in an instant.

 Since then, we have all seen our lives turn upside down and inside out. We are making contingency plans for contingency plans, the situation is changing on a daily or even hourly basis, and we have been needing to assimilate information at speed, turn it into good decisions, and clearly communicate those decisions and their implications to colleagues and to students.

A few times over the last (not quite) week, people have asked me why I’m so calm. How am I managing to keep my mind focused enough to cognitively process all of this vast, complex information, make informed, practical decisions, and communicate all that is needed to students and colleagues? The short answer is that I’m not – not all the time. Like everyone else, I have had moments of despair, of just feeling totally overwhelmed. As my daughter put it last week, I am working out how to home-school 900 or so students. However, those moments are just that – moments. I keep my focus because I can still see positives – and being grateful is just one way that we can help to maintain our wellbeing, especially during a time of crisis.

So, amidst the worry, the understandable anxiety, and the fear that we all feel, I’m back once again to counting my academic blessings.

  • Students, students, students. This week, I have had many emails from students. Some have quite rightly asked for clarification or help. Many have thanked me for doing what is, after all, my job, and almost all of them have asked if I’m ok, or if they can help in any way. One in particular has asked for student forums to be set up so they can talk to student voice reps; as a community, they collected vast amounts of food and toiletries for foodbanks. So many of them have been uprooted from their accommodation, had no idea what on earth what was going to happen about anything, and for some, they never got to “finish” university. Amidst all of their own uncertainty, their concerns are for everybody else. Students, you are genuinely a blessing.
  • I have some absolutely awesome colleagues at Keele. I have been known to write about toxicity in academia, and I’m not about to deny that it is “a thing”. But this past week, I saw the very best of people doing their very best in impossible circumstances. People stepped up, went above and beyond, to learn new technologies, to make sure that students were supported, to find ways of working at home amidst families, pets, a lack of resources and equipment, and all of their own individual complications, all whilst scared. In the midst of all this, they took on extra responsibilities, and they offered to do even more. Academics, technical staff, administrative staff, colleagues right across the entire spectrum of people who work in universities – if it wasn’t for you, higher education, me included, would have fallen on its metaphorical behind this week. You made sure that didn’t happen. Thank you.
  • On an individual level, I am immensely grateful for so many things. I am used to working from home, so have adapted quickly. My husband (sadly no pets to make appearances on video conferences) is supportive, and used to having me working here. I have a good home office set up. And I know I have the full support of friends, colleagues, and my manager. I’m regularly “checked up on” just to make sure I’m doing ok. Social distancing, and even social isolation, are not really about the social things at all – I am happily distancing myself physically, whilst maintaining contact with people socially in very positive, constructive, and helpful ways. While I have a phone, the internet, and the ability to communicate, I will continue to be social – at a physical distance.
  • Finally, I know that, right now, nothing will ever be perfect. I strive for excellence, for perfection, in so much of what I do. For now, I am grateful that I work in an environment where “good enough” is recognised as something extraordinary in the current circumstances, and where it is ok to pause, sigh, and recognise that life may never be the same again. I am not only able to make space for those moments of despair, I am encouraged to put my own mental health first, to acknowledge the worries and their impact on me, and to take time to look after me and mine. My job is important, but I am not dealing with life or death situations, and I have the privilege to be able to step away from the frenetic and urgent pressures of my job, to notice the sunshine, the birdsong, and to dwell, even if briefly, on the kindness of those around me.

Over the weekend, I’ve been reflecting on just how important it is to still find the positives in life, even when things seem desperate and hopeless. I’ve found it immensely helpful to focus on good news stories, and to look for examples of people going above and beyond to look after their fellow humans. It helps me to count my blessings, and to have hope, where hope seems hard to find. If you’d like to join in, you might like to follow #GoodHumans and/or #GoodNews on Twitter. It won’t change the world, or eradicate a virus – but it might just help to shine a little light in the darkness for you, and for others.  

You’ll find me on Twitter @JulieH_Psyc. Here’s the Tweet that got me started on this idea:

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