Mental Health and Conferences: A Practical Guide

Maintaining wellbeing at an academic conference.


This summer, I have been fortunate enough to attend two major conferences in my field: the American Literature Association in Boston and the Modernist Studies Association in Amsterdam. Having anxiety, approaching each of these trips was a daunting task (a feeling, I discovered, many others shared). Financial pressures, the stresses of travelling, being away from your support network, a lack of routine and presenting your scholarship in front of leading academics in your field can put strain on your mental wellbeing. Thinking through these factors at the MSA, I decided to produce a practical guide for approaching conferences with mental health issues. This guide is comprised of self-care practices I have developed over time, tips I learnt from attending the conferences and suggestions from other researchers drawn from Twitter. It in no way covers all the variables related to mental health difficulties, and I would welcome further suggestions on social media, as well as other articles attending to different issues. With that said, here is a practical guide to keeping well at conferences.

Attendance Is Not Compulsory

Let’s begin at the beginning. Conferences require a lot of emotional labour, especially if you are presenting a paper. We are often told we need to attend certain events in order to meet the right people, have our voices heard and improve our scholarship. This is a myth. If I attended every conference recommended to me, I would not have a free weekend from May to September. Conferences are a great way to introduce yourself and share knowledge, but they are not the only choice at hand. Sending an email can often be a more effective introduction than scrabbling for five minutes after a panel. Forming a local network can offer the opportunity to share your scholarship and receive in depth feedback from likeminded academics in the field. Think critically about why you are attending the conference. Do you really want to go? If the answer is ‘No, I don’t want to’ or ‘No, I am unable to’, then there are other options: Another conference closer to home, a more relevant networking event, self-care followed by a short email, or giving yourself the time to mend before thinking about conferencing at all. Conferences are not essential, and it is important to keep a sense of perspective. It will not mark the end of your academic career if you miss one event, but it may put the breaks on your scholarship altogether if you fail to take care of yourself.

Location, Location, Location

So you have decided to go. You are fit, ready and excited. Maintaining that energy throughout the conference is important, and crucial to this is having a place to retreat. I know my own mind, and I need space to unwind at the end of a long day. Having a single room is incredibly important, and I would gladly stay a forty-minute walk away over taking a hostel close by. Others work differently, and prefer to have company or be nearer the venue. Understanding your needs and implementing these early on is crucial. As soon as you know you are going to the conference, take steps to secure accommodation, giving yourself time to choose and not rush to find the last remaining options. Search widely, think about hostels, hotels, bed and breakfasts, AirBnBs. Consider if including breakfast will impact your day, allowing you start the morning right. Think about the area too. If you go running, will this provide a safe space for you to continue exercising? It may be hard to hit the perfect balance, but allowing yourself to breathe and make informed decisions is important, especially at longer or international conferences. I realise that economic constraints often effect final decisions, and here I would like to stress that attending a whole conference is not important. Booking for two nights at a hotel that suits your needs and missing the fourth day of the conference is a much better option than sleeping restlessly in a hostel four miles from the proceedings.

Take Breaks

For many with mental health conditions, access breaks are crucial. All too often, conferences do not provide the opportunity of space for these. 15-minute gaps between sessions forces us to choose between unwinding, eating and going to the loo. Should you find yourself in this situation, it is vital you impose your own access breaks on the schedule. Conferences are a marathon, not a sprint and taking breaks allows you to be prepared for each session you choose to attend. Being refreshed is crucial if you are to take in information properly, digest the panel and stay informed. No-one will notice if you do not show up to a certain session. There are no points for having a maxed-out schedule. I personally find breaks the most important aspect of keeping mentally well at a conference. Coupled with having a hotel close by, you can effectively manage your time, retreat for a nap or a meal, collect your thoughts and practice self-care outside of the busy conference centre. On this note, it is often helpful to not stay in the hotel your conference centre may be located in. Having some physical distance can help create mental space from the conference, even if your hotel is just a short walk around the corner. For conference organisers, ensuring your venue has a spare quiet room for access breaks, and including a longer lunch can really help those struggling with mental health. Access is not simply a question of having a ramp at the entrance, it is an ongoing practice that ends only when the conference centre is empty.

Maintain Your Routine

There are four undisputable pillars of mental health: Food, exercise, sleep and (for some) medication. For many, having a routine that works for them and allows them to remain well fed and rested, as well as alert and balanced is vital. Too often, I fail to take my routine with me, especially if I am abroad. It is a learning process, but I am getting there. If you are out late for drinks, arriving slightly later the next day is fine. If you need a break to eat a proper meal or take a power nap, then take said break. Good food can be hard to come by at conferences as we dash between fast lunches and rich dinners, so bringing snacks or packed meals can help ensure you are getting some nutrition. And don’t fall into feelings of guilt about being on medication, often exacerbated by medshaming attitudes. Medication is a deeply private matter, and nobody else’s business. Having a space in which you can take your medication, often in private, and wait for the effects to kick in if they need too should be of utmost importance. Skipping medication to attend a panel puts your health on the line, and no conference should make you feel that way. It is just not worth it. Plan your conference around your routine, not the other way around. Make space when you need it, set limits when the conference fails to do so. The event should work for you, after all.

Build Meaningful Relationships

Feelings of loneliness can be devastating at conferences. It appears everyone knows everyone else, and can feel like you know no-one. This was elucidated in glaring clarity for me at MSA, when someone casually mentioned that I ‘know everyone’. I spent the conference feeling lucky for the conversations I had, and the support of my supervisors. I knew a good handful of people, but still felt like an outsider. These feelings are only natural. Some researchers like to bring a friend or partner to the conference with them, exploring the city in breaks or by night. This is a good option, and not one many think of (I certainly hadn’t). At the conference itself, try not to think of meeting others as networking. This can lead to cynical, instrumentalised interactions. View the conference as an opportunity to share your interests, meet others as invested as you are and make long-lasting connections. Seek out kind people over leaders in your field. Breaks are for chatting, not working, and cracking a joke can be a lot more important than getting yet another footnote. If you are organising a conference, consider having a sign up system, where people can pair up before the event so they are not alone. Equally, social media can be a great way to meet people before attending the conference. Some of the most productive, insightful and friendly chats I had at ALA and MSA were born out of digital interactions. So pluck up the courage to message someone online, or use the conference hashtag to get involved early.

Release the Pressure

The pressure to always be ‘on’ at conferences is overwhelming, even when you remain critical of your surroundings. In this regard, it is important to understand that saying no, taking time out and setting your limits is important. You do not always have to network. You do not have to attend every event. You do not have to drink alcohol. You need half a day off before your paper? Take it. You don’t feel up to an evening event? Go home. Just as important is respecting each other’s limits. If you ask someone for a drink, make it clear that it doesn’t have to be alcoholic. If they say no, take that answer for what it is. Don’t cajole people into joining you, they could just be in need of a rest. Should you be organising a conference, there are steps you can take to reduce the overall pressure: Send out emails inquiring if attendees have access needs, ask if participants would like their pronouns included on their name badge, query dietary requirements, set aside prayer space, ensure you have events without alcohol entirely, as well as those that include wine. Ultimately, pressure is most often enacted at an individual level, and we can all do more to ensure someone else is having a relaxing, interesting time. Small actions can mean the world.

Money Matters

Conferences are expensive: Trains, sign-up fees, food, hotels, new clothes, childminding and so on can all mount up. These fiscal drains can add to mental health pressures. Managing your money as a young academic requires a sustained debate in itself, yet I would like to stress that there are ways you can reduce the economic strain of a conference. Consider going for just one day, apply for scholarships should they be available, email the conference asking them to waive the attendance fee. If you are an organiser, consider having a registration fee for single day attendees, clearly mark if you have any bursaries available, think about whether you can waive the fee for those that can’t afford it and present this information on the website. Inquiring about money is often embarrassing, and many will avoid the subject to not stick out. Signposting is endlessly useful in this situation and thinking through what you are and aren’t able to offer will allow people to evade those sticky questions.

Be Kind (To yourself, and others)

I would like to end with the simplest, but most often forgotten part of wellbeing. Remaining kind ensures an open, accessible space that people feel comfortable navigating. Be kind to yourself and revel in your achievements: your attendance, your participation, your discussions. Take time out to really enjoy the conference. Attend a panel outside of your field, simply for the joy of learning. Leave your notebook in your bag and don’t feel obliged to write anything down. Avoid bragging, even when others do. This creates a competitive culture that everyone is sick of. We are all achieving something great through undertaking doctoral research, unwarrantedly drawing attention to your publications, teaching experience or latest fellowship is wholly unnecessary. And do not mention the job market if you don’t need to. It is there, looming, whether we like it or not. Invest in talking about more constructive themes: papers you liked, scholarship you are enjoying, topics outside of work (should you feel comfortable). If you are up to it, spend time supporting others where you can. Volunteer as an enabler, talk to those who might be alone, tell people how excellent their paper was, ask positive questions. I would like to briefly dwell on this last point. We need to think about how we pose queries to one another. Launching into an attack (especially on a graduate student) leaves the speaker feeling alienated in an already competitive environment. If someone does not have an answer, or fails to touch on everything you would like, talk to them afterwards in a way that builds, rather than destroys. Offering advice is one thing, telling people which route to take their research in is invasive and plainly rude. Critical debates do not require barbed comments or snarky asides, they ask us to pause, revaluate, reflect. As simple as it sounds, tone can be the most important thing. And we should all be aiming to foster an encouraging tone throughout the conference.

Mental health is a tricky beast. It rears its head when we least expect it, and the fast-paced space of the conference can cause us to falter or slip. Remaining self-aware, taking control of the situation at hand and putting ourselves first can ensure a much more enjoyable, productive event. I hope this guide has helped others as much as the advice I received helped me to consider my own approach to conferences. Let’s build ourselves as we build the field.