Interview with Shep Chidarikire on Mental Health, Academia and Parenting

By: Laura Thompson
Today we interview Shep Chidarikire, a lecturer and nurse in mental health, working in Tasmania, Australia. He discusses the mental health challenges of being an academic and a parent, and the importance of creating an organisational culture that removes the stigma associated with mental health issues.

Q1. Tell us a bit about your background, work and family.

I’m originally from Zimbabwe and currently working as a Lecturer in mental health in the School of Nursing at the University of Tasmania. I trained as a registered mental health nurse in England at the University of York and subsequently worked there for a while in adult forensic, acute and community mental health nursing before moving to Australia 11 years ago. I am married to a Tasmanian, hence we decided to move to Australia to live. We have been married for 17 years and we have three boys aged 13, 10 and 6.

Shep’s sons visiting him at work at the University of Tasmania

Q2. What are the major challenges many academics face that impact on their mental health?

I think the major challenges many academics face are exhaustion and burnout resulting from distal factors. These are factors that are out of their control but they are expected to participate in, for example writing grant applications. The process of grant applications is time-consuming and exhausting, and the finishing stages are usually burdened with the need for an extensive round of signatures and scrutiny. Then, the selection for the successful applicants often leads to disappointment. Mixed with performance expectations, and school and career expectations, this can cause anxiety or frustration and burnout. Secondly, in certain schools excessive teaching loads or expectations can also impact on the mental health and well-being of academics.

Q3. What are the major challenges many parents (or those with other family responsibilities) face that can impact on their mental health?

In my experience, as an academic and completing my PhD part-time, I found juggling the many demands of parenthood, family and teaching had a real impact on my well-being. This is because, as you know, life doesn’t just stop when you have teaching commitments – you have deadlines, and yet your responsibilities of taking the kids to school sport and family financial commitments do not necessarily stop. It is necessary to power on with your PhD writing, but often something has to give.

Q4. Many academics are on short-term contracts, and move regularly for new jobs, how does being in a new place, and often a new culture, impact the health and well-being of those working in academia?

Uncertainty usually breeds anxiety, maybe depression and breakdown. I can imagine staff feeling unsupported and anxious about how they will meet their financial commitments if they are on contracts are not renewed. I have not experienced this personally as I’m in a continuing position.

Shep and his wife attending a community fundraising gala dinner

Q5. Do you have any suggestions for addressing these challenges and accessing help both at work and at home?

I think the workplace and home environment should strive to fight against stigma and help let people know that it’s okay not to be okay. Stigma and discrimination of people who may be experiencing mental health distress is the single largest barrier to accessing help and support. So, family members, the community and the workplace should be educated on mental health issues and how to look after themselves and one another. It is critical that people do not feel embarrassed to seek help.

Q6. What are the organisational structures or policies that you believe would enable parents suffering from mental health issues to feel supported and succeed at work/study in academia?

The culture at work, particularly with the line managers, should be supportive and open to give academic and professional staff the courage to put their hand up and talk to someone if they think they are not coping. And, for the staff member to be reassured that having mental health and well-being challenges is not a sign of weakness or under-performance. Instead, they should be commended for their courage, given support and offered the necessary help.