Mental Health and Stress

Written by Dr Tracy Bussoli

Everyone is talking about it these days! Celebrities such as Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry have been discussing it for a while and now Prince Harry and the Duke of Duchess of Cambridge have jumped on the band waggon. We are, of course, talking about mental health.

Statistics from the Mental Health Charity, Mind, state that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health issue every year and 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem, such as anxiety, each week.  Despite all the publicity, Mind suggests that the incidence of mental health problems has not increased significantly over the last few years but worries around issues such as money and jobs are making it more difficult for people to cope.

The Guardian’s  Academics Anonymous covers the topic of mental health in academia on a regular basis. One recent contributor highlighted how difficult it is to look at negative student feedback as their depression makes it impossible to look at the comments objectively to improve their teaching. A 2014 study by the University and College Union (UCU) also stated that 64% of the 2250 UCU members surveyed said their stress levels were either high or very high.

So why is it so important to keep our stress levels ‘in check’ and maintain good mental health? Put simply, when we are free of anxiety, depression, excessive stress and worry, addictions and other mental health issues, we work productively and live our life to the fullest. This means that we are more able to handle the natural ups and downs of life and the challenges that it throws at us, which is essential in the tough world of academia today.

So how much stress is too much? The stress response curve created by Nixon in 1979 (below) shows that a certain amount of stress or arousal serves as a motivator and encourages us to stay engaged and focussed on our work. However, too much stress can tip us into an area where our performance is impaired and our mental health suffers.

Nixon Stress Response Updated

Nixon’s Stress Response Curve

The blogs in this series will provide some tips and advice on how to keep our mental health in check and ensure that we are working either within our comfort zone, if that is where we want to be, or at the peak of our performance, just beyond our comfort zone!