by Dr. Jem Tosh
Trigger warning: Brief mention of abuse (incl. s*xual abuse) and examples of upsetting events in academic settings.
Academic trauma is when harm or distress occurs in an education context. It spans from Kindergarten to University. It can include bullying by peers or teachers, being shamed for being different, your educational needs being dismissed or mocked, or not getting the support you needed at the time. It can also be when trauma from a person's home leaks into the school environment, like experiencing neglect at home and being ridiculed at school for not having the food, clothing, or things that you need (and that everyone else seemed to have). Memories that fill people with shame, sadness, and anger from negative events in the past (like being laughed at during a presentation, being shouted at by a teacher, having a supervisor that doesn't respect your boundaries, to emotional, physical, and s*xual abuse) can show up in the present as chronic anxiety, writer's block, a very loud inner critic, imposter syndrome, procrastination, people pleasing, panic attacks, and avoiding the spotlight or opportunities for promotion (i.e. a general 'fear of success'), or its counter, an immobilising fear of failure.
Academic trauma is when harm or distress occurs in an education context. It spans from Kindergarten to University.
It doesn't really matter what part of my work I'm focusing on - my research, teaching, publishing, or therapy - the toxic environment of academia frequently comes up, as does a long history of painful memories from earlier education experiences. For the neurodivergent folks, it was being labeled as 'lazy' or 'too much', or 'a loner' or 'weird'. For queer, trans, and nonbinary people it can be experiences of being bullied for who they are, or for spending most (or all) of their education in the closet and never feeling safe enough to be themselves. For disabled and chronically ill people, there can be a history of rigid and unaccepting structures that expect everyone to be able to move, sit, and communicate in the same way - and often condemnation or punishment for those who don't.
It can be a particular assignment, exam, or moment where you felt not good enough, not loved enough, not supported enough, or invisible. It could be times when you felt like the attention was too much, too negative, or too aggressive.
[It] can show up in the present as chronic anxiety, writer's block, a very loud inner critic, imposter syndrome, procrastination, people pleasing, panic attacks, and avoiding the spotlight or opportunities for promotion (i.e. a general 'fear of success'), or its counter, an immobilising fear of failure.
These traumas aren't always in the distant past either. Bullying in academia - of students and staff - is widespread and in a lot of cases, normalised. This makes it much harder to be able to see it for what it is, and all too often academics and students blame themselves. I remember my first bullying experience in an academic setting as an adult and reaching out to a colleague in desperation. I shared what was happening (which was textbook bullying in the workplace) and was told, 'That's what academia is, get used to it'. Not helpful.
And while there's plenty of advice on how to leave a harmful environment (join a union, make a plan, find somewhere else to work, etc.), there's less advice or awareness about the support that can be needed afterwards, to heal from that trauma and to stop it from becoming a barrier in the rest of your education or career (e.g. with EMDR), and how to reduce the changes of it from happening again (e.g. boundaries and having a great support network).
In addition to supporting unions and working to create better working (and learning) conditions for all, there needs to be more support for those currently in toxic education environments and for those who have escaped them but never had the chance to heal from those experiences.
If you would like to know more about how I go about healing traumatic memories, you can read more about my therapeutic work here.
If you are currently studying at university and are feeling low or unsupported, you may find the following affirmation video helpful. Please note that you may find the video triggering or emotional if you have waited a long time to hear these things said to you. For a copy of the transcript to check for triggering content before listening, visit our resources page here.