Suicide in Academia

Suicide carries such an enormous stigma that it simply isn’t talked about openly. Since my mother died by her own hand a few months ago, I’ve made it a mission in life to de-stigmatize suicide. Not talking about it certainly doesn’t stop, or even reduce, its occurence. So, let’s have a conversation about it.

When I was a Ph.D. student, I remember one of the Master’s students in my department committed suicide. I had met her a few times. She was Chinese and apparently was failing out of the course. She was unable to return home. I remember thinking at the time that my own mother would have been really happy if I had failed out of my Ph.D. program because I would have had to have gone back to her.

Failure is very common in academia. In fact, it is the norm. Our experiments fail repeatedly. Our grant applications fail at the rate of 80% or higher (although this depends on your field, obviously). Our papers fail to get published at a significantly higher rate than they succeed. Many of the top journals (in my field, at least) have a less than 10% acceptance rate. And even when our papers do finally get published, they often fail to get cited much. It’s like the whole system is designed to crush your confidence, hence the ubiquitous “imposter syndrome.” We all feel it. What we don’t all realize is that the system is designed to make us feel that way.

“It’s like the whole system is designed to crush your confidence, hence the ubiquitous ‘imposter syndrome.’ We all feel it. What we don’t all realize is that the system is designed to make us feel that way.”

When you mix in these failures with the increasing metrics-based surveillance at universities, the situation can become unbearable for an academic. Even “successful” professors, like Stefan Grimm at Imperial College London, break under the pressure. Professor Grimm had achieved full professor and was (or so I am led to believe) producing good research, but he (allegedly) wasn’t bringing in enough grant money. Rather than face the sack, he opted to take his own life instead.

In my opinion, though, the biggest threat to the life of an academic is not performance management (which, when done right, can and should be motivating). It is the culture of bullying tolerated in some universities. Yes, virtually all institutions have anti-bullying policies and HR business partners to whom bullying and harassment can be reported. But what if HR is complicit? In such situations, suicide is much more likely to occur. And when it does, how can they live with themselves?

In an e-mail that Prof. Grimm auto-sent to his department a couple weeks after his death, he wrote, “What these guys don’t know is that they destroy lives. Well, they certainly destroyed mine.” These words repeatedly echo in my mind. The professor was a human being, but his worth as a human was somehow wrapped up in his grant income. Think about that for a moment.

Personally, I believe that science is a beautiful thing. There is nothing inherently oppressive about it. But when science is subject to perverse incentives and scientists are easy targets of bullying, suicide can seem like the only option. This is why we need to talk openly with each other about it. To not do so would be a disservice to those who have taken their lives.

Prof. Andrew R. Timming

IMPORTANT: If you are having thoughts of suicide, please reach out for help immediately. Suicide may seem like the only option, but it is not. Organizations like Lifeline and the Samaritans literally save lives. Call a friend. Call your family. If you feel like you can no longer cope, call the emergency services. Your life is precious.

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

One thought on “Suicide in Academia

  1. Andrew, this was an article that reverberates in many ways. Workplace bullying has not been taken seriously even though managements have policies about it.

    Migrants are exposed to it in insidious ways and often are too scared to speak out. If you have a mental health issue or are “different” in any way you at risk of being treated with scant respect.

    In a multi-professional way, bosses can be a significant group that perpetuates bullying.If it doesn’t lead to suicide it causes unhappiness that increases stress and many other wellness issues.

    Australia has one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the world. It has been the case for years.

    When are we going to ask ourselves the “hard questions” and do something positive about the questions that arise?

    Do lives matter?


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