Mental health and wellbeing in the history and heritage PhD community – three of three

In my previous post, the second in this series, I showcased some research into how social media is used by emerging and established academics, and used my own experiences to highlight how it does, or could, enhance the accessibility, for PhD students with a mental health issue, of some typical research activities. In this final post I’ll explore the other side of this coin by asking: What are some of the obstacles to using social media for this purpose? I’ll also share my parting thoughts about what we might do, as active participants in the HE community, to move towards a more inclusive environment for PhD students experiencing mental illness. 

Barriers to Inclusivity 

Although my own experiences of using social media during my PhD have had largely positive impacts on my mental wellness, I have also encountered some barriers to inclusivity. The first involved a Twitter exchange, where I had asked if it would be possible to speak at a subject-specific PGR forum by video-link. On that occasion the group didn’t feel confident to accommodate the request, which highlights a barrier also referred to by several of the scholars I have drawn on in my previous posts.  

“We don’t know how to do that…” 

Nandez and Borrego, Rowlands, and Boté all point to skills being a barrier to social media use among academics. Rowlands et al in particular provide evidence that social media use is greatest among those who identify as being an ‘innovator’, or ‘early adopter’ of new technologies. As a self-professed geek I would certainly put myself into one of these two categories, which is why I felt confident to set up the live stream of my original conference paper on this topic. But I recognise that not everyone shares this confidence, and that, in the face of the range of social media available, the desire to develop skills may well be tempered by feelings of being overwhelmed.  

Rowlands’ study also shows, though, that academics tend to be selective in the platforms they use (with almost two-thirds using only one or two tools) – suggesting perhaps that we don’t need proficiency in all platforms, but rather an awareness of the ones which are (to borrow a phrase) ‘trending’. 

“We don’t feel comfortable doing that…” 

I’ve already touched on this in my earlier comments about Bennett and Folley’s work on managing a hybridised digital identity, and my own insecurities about sharing too much about works in progress online – even to would-be collaborators. But, again, Rowlands’ work is pertinent here in highlighting that a lack of clarity about the benefits of social media constitutes a barrier to employing it for research purposes, in some cases.  

Like me, Bennett and Folley self-censored their digital selves to ‘fit’ their ideas of how others perceived them. They too were anxious about revealing their weaknesses or gaps in their knowledge, and fearful of receiving a critical reception. This aligns with Pantic’s findings on social networking and mental health, which suggest that inaccurate perceptions of others online (part of what we might call ‘Imposter Syndrome’) can contribute to reduced self-esteem in those who are predisposed to psychiatric illness. 

“We don’t have time for that…” 

Time to acquire skills and build familiarity with tools, and time to integrate social media into the research workflow are both highlighted as issues in studies of social media use among academics. Nandez and Borrego’s work on Academia.edu in particular demonstrates that academics’ intended use of the platform was greater than their actual use; suggesting perhaps that it seemed like a good idea at the time but was demanding to put into practice. The comments on their survey confirmed that this was in part due to respondents being ‘time poor’.  

As I mentioned in my earlier post, juggling ‘work’ and ‘social’ uses of social media can also be seen as a challenge. This has also been linked with time management by Leon and Pigg, who observe that “[digital multitasking can] evoke strong affective responses”, including guilt and shame, among graduate students. Such feelings can, of course, be indicators of mental unwellness.  

What can we do? 

So, what can we do to move towards a more inclusive environment for emerging academics, in which digital technologies play a part? 

I think that what my experiences, and the research that I have presented in this blog series shows is that social media are not simply tools for socialising among digital natives’ or sharing photographs of one’s dinner. They impact upon a broader range of research practices than I had appreciated before I began reflecting on my experiences, and in more nuanced ways. Likewise, I hope that I’ve been able to show mental health in a more nuanced light – not only a “crisis” affecting PhD students and HE institutions, but also a way of life, day-to-day for a significant section of the research community, whose needs might (in some cases) be addressed simply, by subtle extensions to existing practice, and by seeing social media and ‘traditional’ research practices as complementary bedfellows, rather than options to choose between. If I could offer any advice on what might be done to effect change then, it would, humbly, be this: 

  • Seek to understand the nuances of social media in heritage and other humanities PhD research; their potential, and their potential pitfalls 
  • Resist seeing social media and ‘traditional’ research practices as an either/or situation requiring a polarised choice; take an holistic view which values each for its own contribution to the academy 
  • Prioritise development of social media competencies and understanding around social media/mental health relationships (both positive and negative) within organisational strategy, in order to ensure that the mental health challenges of the present lead to a healthier, more inclusive research environment in the future. 

Above all though, I think that a lot can be achieved – in digital literacy and in mental health – by advocating for three things: 

Understanding the needs and potential for growth. 

Daring to talk. 

And challenging existing practices, to bring about change. 

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