Staff coping with suicide bereavement may not feel comfy asking for help. So how should universities look after them?
Last spring, I interviewed successfully for what I can only describe as my dreaming undertaking. For the first time, six years after finishing my PhD, I could see a clear future in academia. Two months before I was due to start, my sister ended her life. Beyond the emotional complexities of suicide bereavement, I couldnt have predicted the ways my working life would be affected.
A recent study at UCL found that staff and students whose loved ones had died through suicide were 80% more likely to drop out of their undertaking or surveys than those where demise was from other causes. Every experience of heartache is unique, but an emerging body of research has begun to consider the distinct challenges faced by those who have lost loved ones through suicide. Alexandra Pitman, who authored the UCL study, suggests employers should be aware of the significant impact that suicide bereavement has on peoples working lives and make adjustments to help their faculty return to work.
Since suicide is often preceded by strained relationships, and the cause of demise is a possibility traumatic, it can lead to a particularly difficult mixture of sorrow, anger, blamed, relief and a search for answers.
I threw myself into the new task, seeking an escape in the fact that none of my new colleagues knew what Id been through since the interview. Anxieties about presenting myself as the person or persons they had hired, making good impressions and delivering on all I had promised are shared by many working in academia. They gave me the opportunity to dissociate from the part of me bound in grief.
There have been days in the classroom when the strain of this performance must have shown. Like most lecturers in early career or changing roles, I was teaching other people reading lists: volumes by Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, and David Foster Wallace meant there was no avoiding the subject of suicide, or the often frank approach to it from students and colleagues for whom it is primarily a literary matter. Elizabeth Bishops One Art stopped me cold for what felt like minutes mid-lecture.
Ive always been supportive of the use of trigger warnings and the need to create safe spaces for discussion. Now I was bracing myself to get through distressing conferences. Its funny how nobody talks about the need to handle difficult subject matters with the same sensitivity toward colleagues as we prove toward students.
This year has also made me more aware of the fact that an institution can only offer the subsistence we ask for. In January, at my partners encouragement, I eventually explained the situation to my departmental head. I was offered compassionate leave without hesitation, but declined, worrying that too much time to myself might make things worse. Although it helps to know the support is there in principle, that doesnt make asking for help any less difficult.
The further improve mental health support for university faculty has begun to receive wider attention. But available subsistence still needs to be better highlighted for new staff, especially when it might be overlooked amid other induction information. All personnel should have opportunities to disclose personal concerns to a mentor or someone who isnt responsible for managing their performance. The intricacy of suicide bereavement also shows the need for more flexible support for staff coping with different types of trauma, which might include reduced workloads or a phased return from leave.
Various analyses have found that the experience of suicide is likely to prompting loved ones to question their own sense of purpose. The NHSs guidance( pdf) sets this existential dilemma in simple terms: the fact that a persons demise appeared to involve an element of option raises painful questions that death from natural or accidental causes does not. I cant imagine admitting in a run context how much my point of view has been jolted.
Its particularly tough in higher education since teaching and research are inherently optimistic ventures. Every year, a fresh cohort of students arrive, full of possibilities, while another moves on, for whom we have to believe weve done our very best. Performance reviews, promotion, and calls to demonstrate the impact of what we do are inevitably future-looking. Like our careers, society as a whole is meant to move forward, with universities playing an essential role in that progress. The stasis of sorrow and the despair links with suicide bereavement jars in this context.
Although the day-to-day needs of my students sustain me for now, I find it impossible to imagine a future that doesnt include my sister. All priorities have been called into question. In the longer term, I worry what the system will make of me if I cant re-orientate myself.
In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here . Join the higher education network for more remark, analysis and job opportunities, direct to your inbox. Follow us on Twitter @gdnhighered. And if you have an idea for a narrative, please read our guidelines and email your pitching to us at highereducationnetwork @theguardian. com .
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