Some days ago, I woke up to unexpected and desolate news. A colleague of mine, from Italy, had died. He was 37. He had just got a permanent position at an American University. He had taken his own life.
It’s never easy to figure out why in such circumstances. One is left with only guesses or speculations. And above all, a vague sense of guilt: could I – could anyone – have done something to prevent this?
I had had a Skype chat with him just over a month ago. Nothing in his words (which I re-read on my Skype account, just in case I had missed a hint) seemed to indicate that he was unhappy. Apart from multiple commitments landed on him, he seemed to be pleased to have finally secured a long-searched-for position in a job he so much loved. Yet, he must have been under considerable pressure. Simply too much, it appears.
In many ways, an academic career is very unusual. It demands things from you that other jobs normally don’t. It demands that you move around from one post-doctoral position to another, often for many years, before you manage to get a permanent post – if you ever do!
It demands that you leave behind family and friends. Often, relationships end because distances make them unpractical to pursue any further. It demands that you adapt to new countries, new cultures, new languages. It demands that you re-establish your roots where none had been before and build from scratch a sense of belonging.
For some, this is – or becomes – too high a price to pay in exchange for the excitement that comes with a life in academia.
To make things worse, the competition in many research-intensive universities is often fierce and the human factor seems to become secondary to academic success. An individual’s personal history, background, and well-being are generally ignored in favour of one’s track record or potential for further achievements.
To an extent, one may claim this is as it should be. A job environment is precisely that. It’s all about the job, with little – if at all – space for concerns about emotional distress. No matter if emotions are what ultimately makes us human beings and elevates us above everything else.
I know from personal experience the sense of isolation, loneliness and hopelessness that can prevail when you are away from everything familiar to you. These feelings are made only more acute when you are under the pressure to deliver and to perform. Reclaiming stability in such situations may seem unachievable.
In many ways I have been fortunate. Not because things have been easy for me. But because, luckily, I’ve always been able to ask for help every time I felt so distressed I thought I couldn’t take anymore. Perhaps it’s easier for a woman. We seem to be better at opening up and reaching for help.
I wish my colleague had managed to do the same. I wish he had found a way to believe that there would still be a future despite the temporary darkness. I wish he too had been able to ask for help.
And the reason I am telling you all this is because I sincerely hope that if you ever find yourself in such despair, you might be able to stretch out your hand.
Do not give up. You are not alone. There is always someone out there who will be willing to listen and offer some comfort. It doesn’t have to be someone you know. But, please, do ask for help. No job in the world is worth your life.
As for you, my colleague and friend, may you now find peace wherever you are.