The Festive Season and Mental Health in Academia: Why We Should Resolve to be Selfish

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There is nothing like the merriment of the festive season to amplify internal negativity in the hearts and minds of PhD students and ECRs. Many of us have packed up books and downloaded papers with the intention of diligently reading and annotating them over the holidays. We will have promised ourselves that we’ll produce a certain word count, edit a certain amount of our manuscripts, write and submit an abstract, finish an article, or all of the above. Many of us will not have completed, or even started, any of this by the time the holidays end and the time to return to campus is upon us. We’ll feel those familiar feelings of self-doubt, self-loathing, impostor syndrome, not being good enough, smart enough, hard-working enough. We will lose sleep, maybe we’ll comfort eat or not eat enough. We will be so hard on ourselves to the point of truly believing that we have sabotaged all chances of future success.

I used to torture myself at this time of year like clockwork. Like a lot of people, winter does not do good things for my mental health, so it was a very self-destructive annual pattern of setting myself up for a fall, and then making any attempt to pick myself up as difficult as possible. Having spoken to a lot of colleagues about this down through the years, I found that I was far from alone in this behaviour.

The pressures of Christmas, financially, emotionally and otherwise, and the false promise of being able to reset your life that comes with the New Year are partly to blame for these. The loneliness of leaving the scholarly environment for two weeks to constantly have to explain and re-explain and justify your job, research and existence of family and friends can be gruelling. The pressure of academia on PhDs and ECRs is also to blame. Job scarcity and precarity, impossible demands on time and finances, lack of adequate resources for researchers, are just some of the challenges that can seem even more insurmountable when the days are shorter, darker and colder. There is also the anxiety of being asked on your return if you “got much done over the break” and the infuriating irony of a question about work produced during a break.

We like to think that there are less stigmas around mental health issues now. But many of us will still hesitate and even turn away from the help that is there for us. News stories of suicidal adults being turned away from A&E departments and suicidal children not being given help as quickly as they need it can make us think there won’t be any help for us either. We have heard colleagues joke about how you’re not doing it right if you’re not tired and depressed. Scornful comments about “millenials” and “snowflakes” lead us to believe that perhaps we are being over-indulgent about our own emotions.

I know that many scholars were moved by the story of Francis Dolan’s suicide, and his friend, Oliver Rosten’s attempt to commemorate him and highlight the role of the “psychological brutality of the post-doc system” in Dolan’s decision to end his life in 2011. But these conversations are always short bursts of head-shaking and expressions of dismay and questions of “but what can we do?” Unfortunately Dolan’s suicide is not the first and won’t be the last story to make us shake our heads and murmur evermore quietly until we no longer talk about it.

I don’t have all the answers to the loaded “what can we do” question. But I do think we can all make a less self-destructive New Year’s Resolution: be more selfish. There is nothing wrong with giving a little bit more to yourself and prioritising your physical and mental well-being. It has taken me a long time and a lot of health problems to acknowledge this for myself. Take more time for yourself, say no to more things (if you can afford to), and seek help if you need it. In Cork there are a number of community services that offer support for people who find themselves in mental and emotional distress. I shall list some of these below. For readers not based in UCC and Cork, please do look into services in your area and consider sharing them on social media and/or on your website.

UCC offers students a free GP and counselling service.

Services outside of the university include:

MyMind Centre for Mental Wellbeing offers counselling and psychotherapy without the need of a GP referral, and they offer a special rate for part-time workers and unemployed people.

Cork Mental Health Foundation and Housing Association provides a useful list of links to resources that cover a range of issues.

The Sexual Violence Centre Cork provides a range of confidential, free-of-charge services, including but not limited to a helpline, counselling, information and support for survivors and families.

The Cork Gay Community Development Company offer a list of resources on their site.


Please leave details of services not listed here in the comments below, or tweet me @americasstudies and I will update the list.

As a final post script, here’s a short vlog by Marian Keyes that gives a very straight-talking view of the difficult underbelly of Christmas (favourite quotation: “the whole thing is a big load of shit”):

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