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 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!