What is the mental toll of science? Guest recap by Ian Street.

#DiversityJC this week was about mental health in academia. For help on this topic, Ian Street was gracious enough to co-host. Ian has been outspoken about his own battles with depression in academia and science, and is an open and welcoming voice on social media on these topics. We were very happy to have him – and have him help out with the recap this week. Here are his thoughts on what was an insightful and importance conversation…


Why does mental health matter in STEM? We rely on our brains in STEM (and other creative/tournament style disciplines) and perhaps more importantly, we prize a good, well functioning mind to dive deeply into our fields of study. Mental illness is under-recognized, not talked about much, and certainly takes a toll on an academic’s productivity and life if not treated.

Major Depression (see Andrew Solomon’s Talk here if you’re not sure what depression is/feels like) ground me to a halt several years ago. I’m moving again, but it’s a long road to recovery. I don’t wish my experience on anyone, but the good news is that depression, anxiety, and many other mental health disorders are now treatable/manageable.

One of the themes that came up in our discussion was the mental health in academia specifically. The long hours, the culture of expectation of always working, just figuring it out and feeling like we can’t talk about our mental health while we’re always at work (and with depression, our own brains tell us to isolate ourselves– that keeps the depression going):

And how the culture (at least in the United States) prioritizes work over people and just how that can affect early career worker’s mindset about “succeeding” in academia:


A lot of us got into science as kids, before any work-life integration issues became apparent. Most of us still love science, but the structural issues in academia that seem to be exacerbated in recent years do take a toll on our minds and bodies. Working harder is not the answer. And things that start out as impostor syndrome, perfectionism, and burn-out that are problems, but manageable ones, can morph into full blown mental illness if left unaddressed.

There does seem to be a combination of work environment plus some traits like sensitivity, keen observation skills, and deep focus/obsessiveness can turn into a sense of weakness, anxiety, and excessive rumination.


One of the biggest things is a sense of not being alone in our experience. And several people said just that in the discussion. It is a really good first step to end the stigma and open up a safe space to talk about these things.

Asking for help is not weakness. And functioning with depression takes great strength. It’s like operating while carrying a huge rock on your back.

Faculty, staff, everyone needs to be made more aware of the resources that are available if you think you have a problem with your mental health, or you are concerned about a friend.

While structural and cultural changes will help, the discussion also brought up things individuals can do, besides seeking out counseling and more mindset changes like

And talked about making time for ourselves and things we enjoy beyond science. Perhaps things that have a shorter term payoff than research at the bench can have.

Not isolating ourselves, getting too wrapped up in our h-index score and all the other trappings of narrowly measured success, at least some of the time, is important as well:

The uncertainty of academia that is pervasive (and may be felt in other professions) may be the biggest factor of all contributing to the rising tide of mental health issues. That may not go away anytime soon.


Experimenting with what works to alleviate or better manage under the pressures of academia, careers, our lives and sharing that with friends or colleagues can foster a community and help drive change that needs to happen. It won’t be easy. At least we’re not alone, there is an ear out there to listen (I’ll listen! Direct Message me).


When I started to really manage depression better, I had to take my uber-skeptic (maybe cynical?) scientist hat off and found some ideas that really worked for me. None are easy, simple solutions, but I offer them here in short form in hopes they may help someone reading this:

Celebrate other’s successes, be kind to each other, be self-compassionate, adopt a growth mindset, practice gratitude, and dare greatly.


Ian Street is a postdoc in plant biology,a  science and postdoc life blogger, and twitterphile.

 

Thank you to Ian for helping out with #DiveristyJC this week, and thank you to everyone who joined us. Mental health is a major concern in STEM and academia (among other fields of course) so please keep the dialogue going – leave your thoughts,  questions, and resources in the comments!

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4 thoughts on “What is the mental toll of science? Guest recap by Ian Street.

  1. […] If you’re on this blog, you likely care about (or are curious about) diversity and inclusion in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. Here and on our twitter chats, we’ve talked about a range of topics related to diversity and inclusion within the STEM disciplines. There is one we haven’t touched on much, aside from our discussions on the mental toll of science careers: […]

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