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.
I recently got some good work news. (Hooray!) When I heard, one of the first things I did was text a group of friends who are also academics. They have become an essential source of support for me. I wanted to tell them the good news, yes, but I also wanted to thank them. I had almost given up on this thing over the summer—I wasn’t sure it was worth the time I was investing in it, and thought it didn’t stand much of a chance. They told me it was worth it and gave me the encouragement to go forward with it. So, without them, this good thing may well not have happened.
And that’s just one example of a time when I benefitted from my invisible support network. Both in Atlanta and here in Michigan, I’ve benefitted immensely from this behind-the-scenes support. These networks help with specific situations: Is it worth applying for this thing? What do I do about this tricky work situation? I think this behavior by person X seems not okay—am I being overly sensitive? What do you think of the wording on this really important email—is it too strong? Did I screw up when I did Y? I can’t decide between A & B—can you help me think them through? There’s also the general venting and commiserating and celebrating and checking in on each other. These support networks aren’t visible to outsiders, but they feel essential to my ability to do what I do.
It’s possible that the title of this post is an overstatement—maybe I could make it without my behind-the-scenes support networks?—but I’m really, really glad I don’t have to. I don’t want people who will agree with everything I say, but I do want people who I know will be supportive, even if they’re challenging me.
Last year, I supervised Honors Thesis research by Morgan Rondinelli related to mental health in two introductory science courses at Michigan (Bio 171 and Physics 140). Morgan’s survey included two common screeners, one focused on symptoms of depression (the PHQ-8*) and one focused on anxiety symptoms (the GAD-7). The survey also asked about previous diagnoses, stress mindset, resource usage and knowledge, barriers to seeking help, and demographic information. Here, I will briefly summarize some of our findings, but I will especially focus in on the area that seemed the most novel: student views on stigma associated with seeking mental health care.
The tl;dr answer to the question in the post title is: it seems possible.
Recently, a piece I wrote with my colleagues Carly Thanhouser and Daniel Eisenberg appeared at The Conversation. The piece focuses on things that can be done to promote graduate student mental health. Our aim was to move beyond the typical self-help things (get enough sleep, exercise, etc.) – those are important, but exercise can only go so far if there are systemic issues contributing to poor mental health.
I encourage you to read the full piece, but I also wanted to follow up on a few things here (tw: discussion of suicide below).
- We need to focus on mentoring, too!
Perhaps most notably, during the process of editing the piece from our original submission to what got published, a section focused on what graduate mentors can do to promote mental health got cut. On the one hand, I wish it was in there because a mentor’s advising style can significantly influence graduate student mental health, and there are things mentors can do to promote student mental health. On the other hand, it’s such an important topic that it probably deserves its own piece. I’m planning on writing that (and am open to suggestions about where to submit/publish it!)
- It’s good to think about what individual students can do, but we need to also address systemic barriers to mental health
There is general agreement that too many graduate students experience poor mental health and that more needs to be done to address this problem. A recent well-controlled study found graduate students were at 2.4x greater risk of common mental health disorders. That number won’t surprise anyone in academia—it doesn’t take much time in academia to realize that poor mental health is unfortunately common.
There is still much work to be done to better understand the problem and the factors that contribute to it. But there is also a need to make changes that might help improve graduate student mental health. To list some of the specific things I’ve been thinking about: