Dear women scholars of the future,
I am writing this letter to you to discuss the subject of mental health and its effect on your life as an academic. I have decided to focus on this because: (1) This volume already contains well-placed pieces of advice from brilliant tourism academics. As a mid-career researcher and a millennial, I do not yet feel “qualified” to give life and career advice. (2) The academia is known to be a place where one’s mental health is brutally tested. For example, Levecque et al. (2017) found that one in two PhD students experiences psychological distress and one in three is at risk of developing a psychiatric disorder. Yet, there are still debates on the cause-effect relationships: Does the academia cause deteriorations in mental health or the academic world simply attracts those of us who are already at a higher risk? (3) If you ever struggle with mental health issues, I want you to feel that you are not alone. There are people (like myself) who have been there, and I would prefer that you learn from my experience than suffer in solitude. Below are a few lessons that I have learned:
- Make career decisions that prioritize what is good for you as a wholesome individual, NOT what is good for only your career. In my early years, I tended to think that what is good for my career is also perfectly fine for me as a person (research is my life, what else could I possibly want?). This, however, went south very quickly. As a person with a seasonal affective disorder (I get severely depressed during hot and sunny season. Yes, such people exist!), I quickly learned that my happiness in Hong Kong Polytechnic University (where I secured my first academic position) depended more on the local climate than the job (which I loved, by the way). Combined with the sense of social isolation, research and teaching became my only sources of joy. After five years at the institution of my dreams, I chose to leave Hong Kong with its eternal summers for Lyon (France) and its four seasons. From the career standpoint, my departure right after being granted an early tenure made no sense. However, I think this was the point of my life when I wanted myself no longer to be defined by my research. As I enjoy the rainiest summer of 2021 in Lyon, in retrospect, I can say that it was an intuitively right decision (although I miss my Hong Kong colleagues).
- Make the object of your concerns your research interest. It will encourage you to have an analytical and a more objective view on what you are feeling. For me, research has therapeutic qualities; it allows me to concentrate on what feels meaningful and important at that moment. My entire stream of research on existentialism originated in the earlier struggle to find the meaning in life. Reading Sartre, Heidegger, de Beauvoir, and Buber were not just comforting but also made me feel that I am not the first (or the last) person to ponder these issues. While I cannot report on having found the meaning in life (like existentialists, I am convinced that it does not exist), it helped me through particularly unsettling periods of life.
- Find your support group, either in person or virtual. During my PhD studies, I was fortunate to receive unconditional support from my advisor Prof. Xinran Lehto (Purdue University). Aware of my depression, she encouraged me to work around these issues. For example, she had lower research expectations during summer months when I struggled to even complete minor tasks while maintaining a supermarket job to pay rent. Your support group may include family, friends, virtual communities: do not be afraid to find your support clan!
- If your mental disorder is chronic (like in my case), accept it as part of who you are and, if possible, pre-program it into your work schedule and workload. In my case, having a well-established routine is what keeps me on track emotionally, and anything that imposes structure on my routine is welcome. In other words, I manage best when I am busy with external obligations. To this end, I prefer to take on summer teaching, committee work, and I enjoyed scheduled meetings with colleagues, while fitting research tasks in between. This approach helps me stay grounded, more productive in research, and maintain my general well-being.Your pattern may be very different from the above and you may find the opposite true in your situation. Although to various extents, as academics, we can shape our own work modes. Try to accommodate your natural habits and patterns into the workflow.
- Seek help. Seeking help is sign of strength, NOT a weakness. I vividly remember one team building exercise I was involved at Purdue. My classmates and I were blindfolded and attached to each other. As a group, we were to walk in circles in search of an exit from this enclosure. The facilitator told us that if we could not find an exit, we needed to raise a hand and ask for help. We walked in darkness for what seemed like an eternity. The time was ticking, and there was no exit. When the time was up, we had to give up. What was most surprising is that none of us raised a hand and asked for help! At the debrief, the facilitator explained that there was NO exit! Had we raised a hand, the facilitator would have led us out of the enclosure. The lesson was that you cannot find an exit from certain situations on your own. Not only it is ok to ask for help but also you are expected to do so. Although I participated in various team-building activities before and after, this is the only lesson that stuck with me. As a person who considers herself self-sufficient and independent, I must often remind myself of it. If you happen to find yourself in an overwhelming situation, remember that asking for someone else’s help is another aspect of self-reliance and resourcefulness.
With the above, I wish you a fruitful, enjoyable and, most importantly, healthy career in tourism research!
Institut Paul Bocuse, Lyon, France
Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868-879.