5. Well/Being? – Mental Health

Conflicted and sad
My colleagues and I were doing our best to cope with increased workload while trying to take care of our own mental health. Things then became much more difficult… Black Lives Matter highlighted, again, pervasive and institutional racism in (the US and) the UK. I kept hitting walls when trying to get the University to protect East Asian students from more racially motivated hate crimes. The high and disproportional death rate amongst ‘BAME’ people in the UK was scary and frustrating, to say the least. All these, happening all at the same time and one after another. I had no time, no energy, and no headspace to write.  My contract was ending soon and there was a black cloud hovering over my head.  By November 2020 it was all dark and gloomy.  I could not sleep well – and the harder I tried the worse it got.  My body was acting up.  So many things that I have read and heard, experiences of discrimination and exclusion in UK HE, I was going through them, embodiedly. While I am typing this, I can still feel my anxiety being stirred up – and it was only in the past week that I have been able to sleep better. I am feeling so conflicted and sad.  #25

Logistics and challenges
I focussed a lot on logistics and getting us through the time healthily, eating well and trying to get fresh air most days. I did a swimming challenge so that was helpful and then I’ve been doing sort of little press up challenges and stuff and I found that quite useful and enjoyable.  In terms of mental health, I don’t know, probably not particularly positive.  It’s probably exacerbated particular behaviours that I’m normally better able to control so that’s linked to sort of obsessing over certain things that I eat or I drink or over timings – and actually being in a private space you can do all of your weird habits and strange things that you might do in the strange ways in which you do them without the peer pressure and more open environment or whatever of a workspace.    #27

A concrete thing I could control
My obsession became getting what we needed without leaving the house – even if this meant getting up in the night to book online food deliveries. I think it probably was a manifestation of my own, kind of, struggling mental health at the time, yes, I’m going to get up at three in the morning and try and get some food. But it felt like a concrete thing that I could control perhaps, whereas everything else was just absolutely insane.  We managed this for the whole of the first lockdown, rarely leaving the front door.  We certainly didn’t leave the village for months and my husband probably didn’t leave the house for about ten weeks. And at the start of it I was running because I’ve always, sort of, liked sport and things, but I was finding the paths I would normally run on … because I’ve worked at home a lot because academics do, don’t they. All these nice little village paths I could run on, but suddenly with everyone being around and everyone going out for their daily walks, it’s like I can’t distance from people. I can’t keep those two metres, so I stopped. So, we just became very, like, insular and not leaving the house. Yes, it was pretty grim.   #19

This was beyond me
For the first time in my life, I sought support from a counsellor. The university provides this as a service, where you can have 6 sessions for free. It is anonymous, untraceable by anyone in the organisation. I was helped by the counsellor to understand that the confusion at work was exacerbating the turmoil I was experiencing in my personal life. So many things were coming to an end for me, so many changes that were, in fact, part of life and not hugely traumatic or dramatic. Except they did feel that way to me. I was helped to see that the ground was shifting beneath my feet and that it was understandable that I felt confused a lot of the time. I was doing that from April onwards and it was incredibly helpful because she made me sort of reflect on how things were happening against a backdrop of the way we knew about the things in life going on also coming to an end and you know, it sounds obvious now, but I couldn’t see it at the time.  So that was very, very helpful but I’ve never had that sense of not knowing what to do. This was beyond me. I just couldn’t find my way through it without help.  So fortunately, you know, things feel a lot more under control. #27

I’m lucky I’m an introvert
I’ve been fairly lucky that I am an introvert because I live alone, work from home, and am in a new city where I know relatively few people. On top of this I’ve been more careful than the average person because I have severe asthma that could leave me more vulnerable to a serious covid infection as a result. Its been an extremely isolated year.  I’ve also felt keenly aware of how lucky I am to have no dependants and to be, sort of, living this free lifestyle. I have this very distinct feeling that I have received far less variability and stimulation than anyone would in normal life.  I’m in these four walls all the time.  I have a very similar diet every day, day in, day out.  I have similar patterns and routines.  I get social stimulation largely, at least in the past year, almost exclusively through this screen here, instead of being hugged or having people in the same room laughing and sharing and feeding off one’s body language and whatnot.  Not being able to go to places, like travelling or theatre, or any normal things that would accompany a normal life.  It’s as if my world really shrunk in terms of social and other forms of stimulation. I have this distinct feeling of being slightly dumber as a result.  Like, as if I’ve, sort of, stopped seeking external sources of new stimulation.  Sort of a learned helplessness response of some sort.  So, I think this lack of variability and stimulation and just the monotony and the social isolation and the social depravity have left me with, sort of, a flat feeling.  I mean, with academic research, you have to be self-motivated to conduct your own research and that has to be a very internal motivation.  That has taken a toll on my productivity and my ability to move forward on a day-to-day basis.   #18

Crushing solitude
I know that so many people are really struggling to juggle home-schooling and working-at-home.  I can’t imagine how they are coping.  However, there are also those of us who have the opposite problem: the complete lack of human contact.  Online, I appear to be no different, acting as the voice of positivity.  But in reality, I have been finding it incredibly difficult to cope.  There is only so much that Zoom can do to ameliorate crushing solitude.  I am expected to act as pseudo-counsellor for students who are struggling with their studies: I feel that they should really be channelling some of their youthful energy in my direction!  None of us are ‘fine’; some are just coping slightly better than others.  #12

Currently I feel very disconnected from my institution. I haven’t worked on site since the pandemic began. In sixteen months, I have been on campus only once, which was last September when I was required to clear my desk to make it suitable for hot-desking. I miss my colleagues and the buzz of being in a space of ideas and creativity. Work from home is okay, but I feel so remote from the university. I don’t really know what is going on in my school or faculty. I don’t know where the opportunities are or the places where I can be effective.  I don’t even know if I have a desk to work at on campus, or what roles I might be asked to do from September. Is it any wonder that I feel disconnected, and unmotivated.   #1

Not felt the pulse of the campus
I’ve now been living alone in my flat for the past 12 months and now feel a distinct sense that I’ve spent too much time alone within these four walls. I’m here, working, sleeping, eating, reading, doing yoga. All within these four walls. No new stimulation. No new people or friends. No new intellectual discussions with colleagues at the water cooler. I don’t even have an office on the campus yet. I’ve not even been there since my interview. I’ve not met most of my colleagues. I’ve not met any of my students in real life. I’ve not felt the pulse of the campus or the flow of the academic calendar. I’ve not explored new systems or institutions through the eyes of my peers. I’ve not received feedback on my performance in the form of body language in lectures or meetings. I don’t have any tangible sense of being part of the university at all.   #18

One of the things that gives me the most pleasure is to go places. I always have something planned, even if it is you know in many months to come, and now not having anything is like, it is almost like you don’t have a lot to look forward to, and that is the aspect … I was reading about this the other day, and someone said that it is the feeling of languishing. So, I think I am languishing, and it is not nice.  #6

Life is fragile
So friendship groups, some are actually really, really exhausting and maybe I just didn’t have the courage before to say, “You know what, guys, carry on.  This doesn’t work for me.  I’m out.”  Now I could do it because, let’s face it, life is so fragile, we’ve only got today really or this moment.  There is no timeline anymore, it’s not that you’re not going to die until your 70s or 80s.  It’s, kind of … I was going to say imminent.  That sounds really morbid, but you don’t know.   I think life is more fragile.  So, it is more precious to me at the moment.  So, I would perhaps be more confident in telling people, “I’m not about this, but you carry on.  I’m out.”  I have relationships that had gone on for years and they just sucked the life out of me.  It’s tricky really because you’re trying to balance empathy because people are struggling.   #15

Physical, mental, emotional exhaustion
I do wonder about the potential regrets about where I channelled some of that energy, you know, should I have been focusing it more elsewhere, and then you just get into that horrendous cycle of guilt and then think, “Hang on, I’m feeling guilty already about what I am doing…! ”  So it’s just that constant spiral of “What else should I have been doing?  Who else should I have been supporting?”  Physically, I can’t fit into work clothes. I know it’s a trite comment.  But, you know, I’m absolutely physically really unfit and unhealthy in a way that I’ve just not been for decades and that’s really important to me personally and the pandemic has a huge effect on that.  Mentally I think exhaustion on the one hand but sort of physical exhaustion but mental exhaustion and emotional exhaustion I think is something that will…  I don’t think I can fully process how much it has impacted on me at this point, it’s too difficult to process that.  I know it’s really changed and really taken its toll, but it would be too difficult to begin to process that from this vantage point. I’m not quite sure when we will be able to process that or if we ever will or whether we’ll just keep going and keep going and keep going.   #21



Participants’ accounts
Physical wellbeing
Mental health