Let’s discuss #mentalhealth in academia – #DiversityJC recap

This month our DiversityJC discussed an important topic: what we can do to improve mental health in academia. We are going to share the main insights here, but you can read the full discussion on our storify. We had special (and courageous) guests that recently shared their own personal experiences:

Although there seem to be a bit more dialogue about #mentalhealth in academia, this is still a difficult topic to discuss, and we still rarely engage it fully. For our August discussion, we first asked our guests what prompted them to share their experiences in their blogs:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some academics may be inclined to share our experiences, but don’t do it for fear of retaliation. Or as @abigailleigh put it “I worried that my colleagues will look at me strangely, assuming I couldn’t do my research b/c of my mental illness.” But our guests also had positive responses:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indeed. While positive our guests had support, it is not always the case – we do need to feel safe discussing those issues openly, with supervisors and colleagues!

 

 

 

 

 

Accepting and understanding mental health is a crucial part of the process. For that to happen, it is important we talk openly about mental health to alleviate its toll, making it more manageable. Speaking about mental health also lets other academics know they can talk about health issues. Academia applies constant pressure, which likely plays a role in the prevalence of anxiety and depression (e.g. in grad students), so it’s also likely many of us are hiding related struggles. Further support can come from our institutions, which need to actively promote mental health by developing and making resources available, accessible, and visible.

Many successful academics and other professionals deal with mental illnesses. They are effective despite it. Being able to put down the weight of depression or cut away the thicket of anxiety would make them even better scientists. Living with mental illness takes strength and treating them means making people more themselves.

Thanks to all that joined/listened to our #DiversityJC. We hope that this discussion encourage others to share their experiences and talk about their mental health issues. We are a community, and we must stand for each other!

@Doctor_PMS
@DrEmilySKlein
@IHStreet

Links:

The human cost of the pressures of postdoctoral research

Mental Health and Conferences: A Practical Guide

Mental health programs in schools – growing body of evidence supports effectiveness

Mental Health resources:

@TWLOHA, @TheMightySite, @healthyminds, @amhc2016, @chron_ac,

Apps:

Moodlog@headspace, @worrywatchapp,

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August #DiversityJC: let’s talk about #mentalhealth in academia

mentalhealth

There’s a big elephant in the halls of academia. Nearly everyone in academia has experienced some mental health problem. Anxiety, stress, perfectionism, burnout, depression. There is so much pressure! Deadlines, grants, publications, failed experiments. You name it. However, although everybody admits to these pressures, it is still tough to openly talk about it with your peers and immediate colleagues about struggling to stay on top of them. Even worse, part of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture creates a sense of shame around mental health.

Lately there has been more discussion and more studies about the subject, especially among Ph.D. students. But mental health problems in academia go beyond that – postdocs and faculty are also deeply affected by it. A recent study with graduate students and postdoc showed that they show moderate to severe anxiety, depression and stress rates of 41%, 39%, and 82%, respectively.

There are great blogposts telling personal experiences of mental health issues, and we are happy to welcome a few of those courageous authors as guests to our next #DiversityJC discussion!

We’re excited that these awesome scientists will be joining us, and hope you will too. We need to change this culture of accepting but don’t discussing mental health issues. What can be done? How can we help? Join our #DiversityJC discussion next Friday, August 18th, 2p.m. EST.

@Doctor_PMS
@DrEmilySKlein
@IHStreet

 

What’s next?

We had a journal article picked out for November’s discussion. We had the introduction written.

 

Then, you know, the election happened.

 

We got a bit sidetracked. Given that the good Doctor and Ian can’t make our discussion time anyway, I decided I’m changing things.

I believe that this is a wake-up call for us on so many levels, in so many ways. I believe we can use our legitimate fear and anxiety and anger for good. I believe we need time and space to process and understand what happened.

I believe we need each other for all of these things.

Our next DiversityJC discussion (under #DiversityJC) is next Friday, 18 November at 2pm Eastern Time. To focus, I welcome dialogue on

  1. What we think happened to bring about the outcome (we’re scientists, so bring your evidence please),
  2. Our fears specifically for diversity in STEM fields, and
  3. What we plan to do about both avoiding #1 in the future, and to address #2.

I know this is basically open-ended, and I do agree with Ian when he said getting back to focused discussions about diversity and inclusion are important for moving forward, but indulge me. If nothing else, I’ll be using the time to really focus in on my own thoughts. By myself. Also cool with that.

Take care, take care of each other, and be safe.

Emily
Ian
Doctor PMS

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!

Gone Mental: The next Diversity Journal Club

There’s been a trend in our most recent DiveristyJC discussions: mental health.

 

“If it’s too hot in here, get out of the kitchen.”

“You can’t expect to take weekends off.”

“Have you submitted that paper yet?”

 

There are many reasons we’re stressed out in STEM, but what is “normal” stress, and what is far beyond it? We all complain about deadlines, but when do we actually talk about the toll it all takes on our health? Moreover, we already stigmatize mental health concerns and mental illness in this country – now we place that in the competitive culture of academia.

 

It’s no surprise we rarely talk about mental health, rarely seek help for it.

 

For this next Diversity Journal Club, we will focus on the following two posts from The Gaurdian:

Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia

Mental health issues in academia: ‘stories are not cries of the privileged’

In addition to these, some further articles of interest:
Paying Graduate School’s Mental Toll
The Stressed-Out Postdoc
Get Help: How the myth of self-sufficiency fails PhD students with mental illness

And the entire Guardian series, Mental health: A university crisis

 
Increasingly, we are talking about mental health in STEM careers and academia. Let’s use the Diversity JC space to do so here – but let’s also focus on how these mental health concerns intersects with diversity, as it assuredly does.


Please join us on Monday 20 April at 2pm EST on twitter, under #DiversityJC. We will also have the fantastic Ian Streen (@IHStreet) to help co-moderate!

 

Emily K.


Doctor PM

 

Tips for Handling Career Anxiety guest post by @wandsci

Last week’s Diversity Journal Club was about handling anxiety, and not surprisingly, there was a lot of talk about career uncertainty, career change, and the anxiety these things can produce.

I tweeted a few things that have helped me handle my anxiety in this regard, and the journal club organizers asked if I’d be willing to expand on them in a guest post.

Before I get started, I want to note that I am making my comments as someone who does not have an anxiety disorder or depression. People with those sorts of diseases will surely have additional challenges in handling anxiety, which I am not at all qualified to address. However, even as someone whose only chronic illness is asthma, I have used counseling services several times in my past, and have always found them to be extremely useful. If you are struggling with anxiety for whatever reason, please do consider seeking some professional advice and support.

I’ve recently undertaken a rather large career change myself: I quit my full time job and set up shop as an independent contractor and consultant. Working as a contractor is going reasonably well, but it is full of sources of uncertainty- the most obvious being where I will find my next contract. I’m also trying to use some of the time freed up by this change to bootstrap a company that makes things for people who love to learn. That is going according to my plan, but that plan was to go really slowly, at least at first.  In a climate that celebrates venture-backed start ups, it is easy to start feeling like my company is failing before it has even really gotten started, even though I made a conscious decision to do things differently.

If you’d like to see where I’m at, here is my company website. I am actually a little further along than shown on the website. I decided that my first area of focus would be publishing short ebooks (you can also read more about that decision if you’d like), and have one book under contract at out with an editor right now and am close to signing a contract on another book.

There is A LOT of uncertainty and anxiety around the products aspect of my company. I would be lying if I said that all of this uncertainty and the anxiety it produces don’t occasionally make me wonder if I’m doing the wrong thing with my life. My husband can attest that I sometimes have a beer or two or three and whine about it all.

But I also know that I am unbelievably lucky to have the chance to try this out, and I don’t want anxiety to keep me from giving it my best shot. That means I have to keep my anxiety under control. Here’s how I do it.

 

I remind myself about how much time I have.

I am 42. I plan to work in some capacity until I’m at least 65, assuming my health holds and I don’t strike it so rich that “travel the world living a life of adventure” becomes an actual option. I got my PhD and entered the workforce 15 years ago. I expect to work for 23 more years or longer. I’m not even halfway done yet! So I have plenty of time left, and I can afford to take a few years to try to make my current plan work. If it doesn’t work, I have plenty of time to do something different.

Yes, this ignores the very real problem of age discrimination, but as someone who’s spent her entire career dealing with the very real problem of gender discrimination my approach is to acknowledge it exists and assume that I will find a way to do interesting things, anyway.

I keep my eye on my own definition of success.

I spent far too much of my 20s and early 30s chasing someone else’s definition of success. I have finally learned to at least try to judge myself only by my own metrics. This can be hard to do: I am not immune to the effects of peer pressure. But when I feel myself worrying that I’m “failing,” I try to take a step back and ask if that is really true, or if I’m just aiming for a different prize.

I also find it helpful to remind myself that the only thing I actually must do with my career is make enough money to support myself and my family. All other aspects of success are up to me to define.

It is natural for us to absorb the definition of success that is common in the environment in which we work- but we don’t really have to accept that definition. We can choose a different definition, more in line with our own goals. If you choose to aim for a different goal, though, don’t be surprised if some of the people around you are not supportive. Watching a friend make a large change in goals can cause people to question their own choices, and that can be uncomfortable. Some people will lash out at the person whose new direction initiated the confusion. Just remember that your choices and goals are not actually a commentary on their choices and goals, and try not to let them derail you.

I try to understand the root of my anxiety and work to mitigate that.

I can feel anxious for a lot of different reasons. A few years ago, I had a tremendous bout of anxiety that I eventually tracked back to a feeling that my technical skills were getting stale, which would limit my career options. I decided to start working on a personal side project to alleviate that feeling, and that led me to launch Tungsten Hippo, a website about short ebooks. I have done everything on that website myself, and seeing it take shape reminded me that I am perfectly capable of learning new technical skills when I need them, and quieted that particular bout of anxiety.

More recently, I’ve been stressing about money. My husband and I checked our budget before I decided to quit my full time job, and we can accommodate a less predictable income. There is no rational reason for me to be stressing about money, but there is also no denying that I was stressing about money. When I examined my anxiety a bit more, I realized that what I actually need to stop worrying is a reliable income that covers a certain percentage of our monthly expenses. That amount is a small fraction of the amount I actually bring in each month, but it is apparently really important to me. Therefore, I recently signed on to do some work that pays much less than my usual sort of work, but is reliable and can flex around my other commitments. This makes it worth doing, even though by a straight analysis of the hourly rate, it might not be.

This example also feeds back into the point about knowing what success means to me. By most objective measures, the contract I just signed is a “step down” from my usual work. Some people might consider that an indication of failure. But in fact, it is allowing me to continue to pursue my larger goals, so to me, it is part of my attempt to succeed.

Everyone has their own definition of success and their own anxiety triggers. It can be hard to see those through the fog of society’s expectations for us, though. Perhaps the first step towards combating career-related anxiety is to spend some time learning about what really matters to you. This has been an iterative process for me, and it is ongoing. However, as I learn more about what matters to me, my enjoyment of my own life continues to grow. So I think it is worth the effort.