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BLOG: What do we know about academic mental health?

A portrait of academic Roz Collings

Dr Roz Collings, Associate Professor|Head of Psychology in the School of Psychology in the University of Wolverhampton's Faculty of Education, Health and Wellbeing, has written a thought-provoking blog about the importance of recognising academic mental health.

On University Mental Health day (Thursday 14 March 2024) it is pleasing to see that University staff have been given a spotlight. I continue to be an advocate for whole institution wellbeing; enhancing focus on academics in policies and practice, as well as increasing impactful research regarding academic mental health.

The mental health of students has long been a topic of interest with decades of primary research, systematic reviews and meta-analyses, alongside cross cultural comparisons, highlighting the poor mental health of University Students in comparison to the general public (Brown, 2018; Campbell et al, 2022, Macaskill, 2013).

The Covid-19 pandemic created a further influx of concentrated efforts in finding supportive solutions for the student mental health crisis (Chen, 2022; Copeland et al, 2021). It is also well evidenced that poor mental health of students is strongly related to poor academic outcomes such as achievement and retention (Pascoe, 2019; Thomas et al, 2021).

What do we know about academic mental health?

But what do we know about academic mental health? Historically academic staff mental health has received minimal attention. Although investment in the area is growing, a recent systematic review highlighted the stressful academic environment and higher levels of burnout within the industry compared to other jobs (Urbina-Garcia, 2020).

Increased workloads, pressures of research funding, lack of work-life balance and lack of management support is a universal trend globally (Kinman, et al, 2008) leading to many university academics leaving the profession (Heffernan, et al, 2019; Ligibel et al, 2023). Dr Zoe Ayres created a poster of common stressors for academics for part of the mental health series (see Fig. 1) which highlights the multiple facets and identities an academic contends with within their working life. Academia has changed substantially even within the 23 years I have been working.

Centralisation and reduction of academic administrative staff moves much of the work onto the academics. With the increased focus on student mental health has come an increased reliance on academics for pastoral support. In addition performance indicators such as retention, satisfaction etc have become important outcome measures for all staff appraisals, no matter the level.

Figure 1

A graphic depicting mental health in academics

UK University Equity/ Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives developed from the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network Charter) through Advance HE and focused initially on gender equality. Since then Advance HE also developed the “race charter”. However, by 2021 there remained little engagement in disability equality and the intersectionality of disabled people with other EDI groups (Wolbring, 2021).

The University of Wolverhampton has a disability charter and is showing meaningful positive shifts towards inclusivity when it considers all the protected characteristics. However, I sit on university and national disability boards and the conversations around Mental Health (dis) abilities seem forced and an afterthought.

My own recent research has shown high levels of stigma associated with disclosing of mental ill health and a fear of how that information would be used. Staff were concerned that they would not be taken seriously in their roles, that they would be unable to progress in their career and that their colleagues would see them as a “weak link” (Collings, 2023). I personally didn’t disclose mental ill health to my line managers until I was 15 years into my academic career and there remains concerns of how it may impact my progression.

It is time for some significant changes to happen in our profession. All of my team are deeply passionate about supporting our students with understanding and a great deal of knowledge. We should show the same level of compassion towards ourselves and our colleagues.  The culture of the university needs to rapidly change to destigmatise the mental ill health disclosure and provide meaningful interventions and support. But “it seems likely that the peculiar nature of higher education actively encourages particular kinds of bullying” (Tight, 2023, pg. 123) and research continues to highlight that bullying in UK and international HE remains rife (Tight, 2023).

What can universities do?

Universities need a fundamental shift to consider wellbeing as an institutional whole. Academic staff wellbeing is just as, if not more, important that student mental health.

As Richard Branson once wrote “if you look after your staff they’ll look after your customers. It’s that simple”. It is that simple and this mentality should be applied to staff and students.

Academic staff who are well and focused will offer the best support, guidance and teaching to your students. Therefore, I argue that whole university mental health, with academic and professional services included, should be at the fore of university policies and higher management discussions. Higher management should be role modelling work-life balance and self-care so it can trickle down and change the message from presenteeism and overworking to maintaining a correct sustainable balance of work and life. Developing disability equality charters enables institutions to consider their own policies in relation to institutional culture, dignity at work, grievance policies, absent policies (to incorporate disability sickness), reasonable adjustments and work load modelling.

But these should not be reactive and more so proactive in nature with meaningful interventions that maintain the interconnection between staff and students (see Brewster, 2022).


Brewster, L., Jones, E., Priestley, M., Wilbraham, S.J., Spanner, L., & Hughes, G. (2022) ‘Look after the staff and they would look after the students’ cultures of wellbeing and mental health in the university setting. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 46 (4), 548-560, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2021.1986473

Brown, J.S.L. (2018). Student Mental Health: Some Answers and More Questions. Journal of Mental Health, 27 (3), 193-196.

Campbell, F., Blank, L., Cantrell, A., Baxter, S., Blackmore, C., Dixon, J., & Goyder, E. (2022). Factors that Influence Mental Health of University and College Students in the UK: A Systematic Review. BMC Public Health, 22, 1778.

Chen, T., & Lucock, M. (2022). The Mental Health of University Students During the COVID 19 Pandemic: An Online Survey in the UK. Plos One 17 (1) e0262562.

Collings, R. (2023). Academic Mental Health in Higher Education. European Congress of Psychology. Brighton, July 2023

Copeland, W., McGinnis, E., Bai, Y., Adams, Z., Nardone, H., Devadanam, V., Rettew, J., & Hudziak, J.J. (2021). Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on College Student Mental Health and Wellness. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 60 (1), 134-141.

Heffernan, T.A., & McKay, A. (2019). The Academic Exodus: The Role of Institutional Support in Academics Leaving Universities and The Academy. Professional Development in Education, 45, 102-113.

Kinman, G., & Jones, F. (2008). A Life Beyond Work? Job Demands, Work-Life Balance, and Wellbeing in UK Academics. Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment, 17, 41-60.

Ligibel, J.A., Goularte, N., Berliner, J.I., et al (2023). Well-Being Parameters and Intention to Leave Current Institution Among Academic Physicians. JAMA Netw Open, 6 (12).

Macaskill, A., (2013). The Mental Health of University Students in the United Kingdom. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 21, 426-441.

Pascoe, M., S. Hetrick, and A. Parker. 2019. “The Impact of Stress on Students in Secondary School and Higher Education.” International Journal of Adolescence and Youth 25 (1), 104–112. doi:10.1080/02673843.2019.1596823

Thomas, N.S., Barr, P., Hottell, D.L., Adkins, A.E., & Dick, D.M. (2021). Longitudinal Influence of Behavioural Health, Emotional Health and Student Involvement on College Student Retention. Journal of College Student Development, 62 (1), 2-18. doi:10.1353/csd.2021.0001

Tight, M. (2023). Bullying in Higher Education: An Endemic Problem? Tertiary Education and Management, 29, 123-137

Urbina-Garcia, A. (2020). What do we know about University Academics Mental Health? A Systematic Literature Review. Stress and Health, 36, 563-585.

Wolbring, G., & Lillywhite, A. (2021). Equity/ Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) in Universities: The Case of Disabled People. Societies, 11 (2), 49








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