“How can we live in a mad world,” Matt Haig writes in his 2018 book Notes on a Nervous Planet, “without ourselves going mad?”
This is not a new question. In the 1960s, the Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing challenged the idea of normality in modern society, arguing that it is not merely people who are mad, but the world as well.
“If the human race survives, future men will, I suspect, look back on our enlightened epoch as a veritable age of Darkness,” he wrote in The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise. “They will presumably be able to savor the irony of the situation with more amusement than we can extract from it,” he opined.
In his most influential work, The Divided Self, Laing suggested that the challenges encountered by his patients were less of a medical condition and more accurately understood as the simple outcome of the tension between the two personas within us: our authentic, private identity, and the false, “sane” self that we present to the world.
Tension, division, authenticity, self, normality – these are difficult themes made only harder in a changing world where online hyper-reality masks offline grim reality. For many, the 21st century, despite its material abundance and next-day delivery, is a veritable age of darkness. Look around; turn on the news; listen to Trump. You really do need to be mad to be normal.
But where’s all this going? Where’s the link to academe? Where does Matt Flinders sit within this story?
Let me answer with an honest account of the promise of the social sciences, that reflects on the mental health challenge for the academy and which seeks to expose a divided self.
There can be little doubt that mental health is a growing global challenge. And it really is a global challenge. Although rapid rises in relation to depression, anxiety, substance misuse, self-harming and eating disorders have been well-documented in many advanced and relatively wealthy countries, it has been estimated that more than 80 per cent of those suffering from mental health disorders actually live in the Global South, where support is rare.
Seen from this perspective, the potential role of the social sciences in helping to understand why the mental health of so many nations seems to be fraying and what might be done about it has never been greater.
This flows into a second issue and a focus on mental health within academia. Here again the story is not good. There are expectations of excellence in research, publishing, teaching and impact but with shrinking resources, limited support and increased bureaucratic and audit pressure.
Added to this is the fact that an increasing number of academics, particularly those at the beginning of their careers, exist in a precarious professional hinterland in which fractional and temporary contracts are the norm.
A recent report commissioned by the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust found that levels of burnout in universities are higher than in general working populations, comparable to high-risk groups such as health care workers.
Which brings me to a conclusion with a personal tone and a focus on the stigma that still surrounds talking about mental health.
Anxiety and depression can bring anyone to their knees. In fact, the black dog is on my back as I write this piece. He’s been with me for a couple of days, but I know he’ll go again soon. I have learned to manage my black dog – lots of exercise, lots of talking, a little mindfulness and very little alcohol – so that his visits are rarer and shorter than they used to be.
I made the decision some years ago to be open about my mental health. Not to be ashamed or embarrassed. And if I can promote a public or professional understanding, maybe this intermittent dark cloud might really have a silver lining.
Even with all the pressures in academia that I’ve mentioned here, the academic community has been unfalteringly positive and supportive when I’ve needed help. I’ve lost no friends and made many more. Indeed, it is this support that has made me want to put a little something back into the professional community.
On World Mental Health Day, this is my message: everyone needs to dedicate a little thought to their mental health, just as they would their physical health. Don’t feel embarrassed to talk to people and get support. The earlier you do this the better because you will quickly discover that you’re not mad, you’re just normal and human.
This is an amended version of a blog also published on the Political Studies Association website.
Matt Flinders is president of the UK's Political Studies Association and professor of politics at the University of Sheffield.