Last week, I had the honor of being a plenary speaker at the biology19 conference in Zurich. This is an annual meeting of Swiss organismal biologists, where most of the attendees are Swiss graduate students and postdocs. When I first thought about my talk, I debated whether to use the last part to talk about mental health in academia, especially since I am on sabbatical this year and some of my sabbatical projects relate to student mental health. But, when I prepared my talk, I decided to just stick with my normal research.
On the first day of the meeting, I had several conversations with people that veered towards student mental health, which made me wonder if I should have included mental health in my talk. Then, the afternoon plenary on the first day was given by Virpi Lummaa. She gave a really interesting talk about her research, but pivoted at the end to talk more about the human side of science. It was inspirational. So inspirational that I went back to the hotel and changed the end of my talk to focus on mental health in academia. When I decided to make that change, I made another decision: I would admit to a room full of hundreds of my colleagues that I see a therapist regularly, and that doing that is essential to my ability to do everything I do, including my science.
For my talk, I decided to first give some of the statistics about mental health in academia, with the goal of making the point that, if you are struggling with poor mental health, you are not alone.
But I also wanted to talk more about changes we can make to better support mental health in academia. So, I made this slide:
And I decided that, when I got to that second bullet about what we can do—normalize and destigmatize seeking mental health care—I would say that I see a therapist regularly.
When I did, the room got utterly, completely silent. Pin drop silent. And so I made another point: it should not require bravery to admit to seeing a therapist. It should be like saying I go to the doctor if I am sick so I can get well again. Or, to use a comparison I like better, it should be like saying I work with a coach who helps me perform at my best. My therapist is my mental health coach. Coaches help you perform at your best. Therapists do, too.
I started tearing up at this point in the talk, and I’m tearing up again as I type this. That was a little awkward, yes, but, hey, I’d already made it awkward by bringing up therapy and I long ago accepted that there is crying in science.
So, if you see a therapist now or have in the past or think you might in the future: there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in seeing a therapist. Few admit it publicly, but many of your fellow student, postdoc, faculty, and staff colleagues are also in therapy. Working to make yourself healthier and stronger is a good thing, not a sign of weakness.
If you’re struggling with your mental health right now, please reach out to someone who can help—your doctor, a counselor, a trusted friend or professor or other member of your community. There are lots of different therapists out there*, who have different personalities and different specialties, both in terms of the type of therapy they do and they types of clients they work with. (As one example of the latter, I know someone who worked with a therapist who specializes in working with mothers in academia.) It can take time to find someone who works well for you, and that can be hard—very hard—when you’re in the weeds of poor mental health. If it’s too hard to make the calls yourself, ask a trusted friend or family member or clergy member or anyone else you trust to help. There are people who want to help you, even if right now you think there aren’t.
If you’ve never been in therapy, don’t judge people that are or that have been. You wouldn’t judge someone for going to physical therapy, or attending to their health in other ways. Mental health therapy is a lot like physical therapy for the mind, with people working on growing stronger and performing better. That’s a good thing.
*Unfortunately, for some, therapy is too expensive or there is no one available in their area—one thing we definitely need to work on is improving access to mental health care.