Let’s talk about mental health

19 April 2017, 1820 EDT

There have been some high profile deaths in the profession among younger scholars, not just in IR but also comparative/American politics. Two notable examples of late include Will Moore and Mark Sawyer. I did not know either of them personally but through friends and social media, I was aware of them in life and death.

Moore’s death struck many in the IR community especially hard, as he was known to be a dedicated mentor to others, particularly junior scholars, in ways that go above and beyond just befriending and reading someone’s work. His loss has shaken many of them profoundly, and I think many of us on social media feel the loss in ways that are deeper than we care to realize.

These sorts of tragic events remind us that the human condition is hard and that aspects of our profession can be unkind to our mental health. In the wake of the election, I personally have struggled quite publicly with a feeling of powerlessness and questions about the value of ideas and my work. For those of us who study the environment, the unfolding environmental challenges, made worse by the Trump presidency, have been quite demoralizing, as Eric Holthaus poignantly wrote earlier this year.

I also realize that I come at this from a position of privilege. My wife and I are both tenured professors at a R1 research university. Yes, it took three years on the job market, years of a long distance relationship, and challenges along the tenure path, but end up here we did.

As Daniel McCormack made clear in a recent blog post, others find that path to a golden academic ticket blocked and have to find other work, despite their training. I have several friends who made the move after struggling in adjunctland and are much happier for it and are not looking back.

I also recognize that for academics our struggles may pale in comparison to those affected by the opioid crisis or the Syrian civil war. Because we study these kinds of things for a living, understanding tragedy and catastrophe at a distance, often isolated behind our computers, can be dangerous. We may not face the terrible pain of those who die in Syria or in transit fleeing from the violence, but we can be pained watching these events unfold and unable to stop them. As Phil Schrodt wrote on Twitter today, studying what we study can take a toll.

I don’t have any obvious answers. I’m not a mental health professional. The way I’ve dealt with the profound disappointment of how the world seems to be turning is to take my five-year old son on long hikes. My wife and I have binge-watched our share of TV shows and movies. More productively, we also have obsessively called our members of Congress and participated and cheered on efforts to defend democracy. If Twitter was a measure of productivity, we have had a very productive spring. We resolved and struggled to take care of each other and spend more time together. When my wife fell ill recently and had to cancel her trip to Midwest, I think we realized that we have to do better coping.

These all too public losses of members of our profession are more than a reminder, they are a warning. Take care of yourself. Don’t let departmental bullshit and office politics get you down. F–k that s–t. Your family needs you. Your colleagues and collaborators need you. Your students and colleagues need you.

Ideas and understanding the way the world works and how it could be are a noble service. I’m no longer as sanguine that the arc of the moral universe moves in the ways that I want it to, but I’m not going to stop trying to make a contribution. That is the only way to live.