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:
(links for the more info sources: Barreira et al., Duffy et al.)
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.
I couldn’t make it in academia without my hidden support network
Thank you for sharing this. These stories are important if we are going to make any progress in changing the climate of academia.
Really amazing post Meghan. I really hope these ideas become mainstream.
Thanks and best regards,
A great post! It would be hard for me to agree with you more.
I’ve seen a therapist at several points in my life including at the end of graduate school when a thesis, a job search and impending move, and the birth of my first child all added up to more stress than I knew how to cope with and needed to find a way to rebalance and reprioritize my life.
To me your analogy to a physical therapist is spot on and that is how I treat it in my personal relationships. I don’t tell everybody in the first five minutes that I have bad knees and a bad back, yet my close collaborators all know because they’ve seen me take time out from collaborations to take care of myself and it would be stupid to try to hide it. The same with counseling. Except unfortunately it does right now have more stigma (not just in academia but society) which is all the more reason to share.
And I strongly 2nd the recommendation to shop around for a therapist. You’re going to invest a lot of time/energy and somebody* is going to invest a good sum of money. You have to find a good fit. I’ve always started with recommendations and then gone to first appointments with 3-4 therapists before settling in.
Thanks for posting this!
*Hopefully insurance, but its worth it even if you have to pay out of pocket as I have sometimes.
Did the room remain pin-drop silent and did you get some good feedback afterward?
My guess is folks probably didn’t want to speak up too much in public, but hopefully they sought you out afterward.
I was discussing this with a friend who wondered if it was pin drop silent because the audience was intrigued because I was discussing something personal that is important but generally not discussed, or because they were embarrassed because I was admitting to personal stuff. I told her suspect it was probably a bit of both!
I got really nice feedback afterwards, in person and then by email, too. And one person tweeted that it was unexpectedly going to be the main thing they took away from the meeting. So, I know it was appreciated by at least some of the audience, and am glad I did it.
“When I did, the room got utterly, completely silent. Pin drop silent.” Godammit. Really? I’m angry that we’re still here.
For the record, I too have seen a therapist at various points in my career. And I’m a full professor, successful, blah blah blah. It’s fine. This really shouldn’t be that big a deal.
Thank you for sharing this. It’s, ah, timely–I volunteered to lead our departmental discussion about mental health, science, and the ADA next month, and I was going to send out your post on crying as one of the readings. I’m generally a little wary about sharing my own mental health experiences because, honestly, I worry enough as it is about the perceptions other people have about me. It’s even harder to figure out how much to be open about when you’re dealing with intersectionality: for example, my therapist specializes in queer people, and I’ve been taking part in a group for queer people in STEM/academia (I’m the only academic right now, but everyone has some experience with the culture). Often, the issues I’m dealing with are… complicated by that aspect of my background in a way that is hard to disentangle from everything else I’m dealing with, which makes it harder to talk about, especially if I am then concerned I’m going to have to play educator in the same moment I’m seeking support.
Which is common for me.
Anyway, It helps so much to have you being out here and visible. I can’t overstate that enough.
I am betting your experience is somewhat common in that most people experience mental health issues at some point during their lives, but relatively few are comfortable in sharing those issues with colleagues. It can be a dicey dynamic in any workplace, and so I usually advise others to maintain a low profile in the workplace, unless you have an established personal relationship with someone (like a friend you engage with outside of the work enviros). I believe it is usually the case that not everyone in the workplace is supportive of everyone else. Thus, exposing mental health issues at work can make a person vulnerable to those with ulterior motives. Better safe than sorry, I say, and thus I believe it is usually best to refrain from sharing mental health info with people in the workplace. Try and build your support network elsewhere for these issues.
I personally don’t think there is one right path through these challenges. Being honest and vulnerable and opening oneself up to having these issues used against you in the work place is certainly a risk. But so is staying silent and not expressing ones current reality, challenges, issues and needs and receiving support around them. It would be nice if we didn’t have to choose between these, but we sometimes do. And I support each individually finding their own path between Scylla and Charybdis in the way that works best for them.
Good for you Megan, I always appreciate your honesty and forthrightness about who you are as a scientist and person. The more we admit that we are fallible, imperfect people even when we are behind a podium or on a stage, the easier it will be for the people sitting in audiences to imagine themselves in our shoes and, hopefully, the more comfortable those shoes will become.
“The more we admit that we are fallible, imperfect people even when we are behind a podium or on a stage, the easier it will be for the people sitting in audiences to imagine themselves in our shoes and, hopefully, the more comfortable those shoes will become.” Oh, I love this way of framing it! Absolutely!
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You make many good points, Meghan. I think it is a shame that there are so many people in academia in obvious need of mental health services who never take the opportunity to get help. Perhaps the most common- and sadly the least treatable type in our ranks is that person who always feels the need to prove himself out of a feeling of inadequacy. That guy who always has to one-up everyone. The person who demands the center of attention. The one who dominates every conversation… and becomes defensive if not downright rude when someone else outshines him. There are far too many of these blowhards in science- and God knows they need serious intervention!
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