Seagulling, ego itching powder, supporting one another, and happiness

A friend recently shared an episode of the 10% Happier podcast with me, in which the podcast host, Dan Harris, interviews Johann Hari about his new book, Lost Connections. When listening to it, I kept being struck by the connections to academia. One of the first connections occurs right at the beginning, when he notes that, when it comes to understanding the reasons for the rise in mental health conditions, we need to focus not just on chemical imbalances but also power imbalances. Indeed!

But the main thing I wanted to focus on in this blog post is about another part of the podcast, where Hari talks about how our society is set up in a way that is basically like ego itching powder—we are constantly encouraged to think about ourselves and whether we’re getting ahead and getting enough attention and stuff. About 25 minutes into the episode, Hari talks about:

go[ing] through the day in this ego-itching-powder mode, which the environment sets us up to do, which is: your gain is my loss, we’re in a race for scarce resources and it’s like we’re rushing out of a burning building and I’ve got to clamber over you, I’ve got to fight for every moment of what I get, and if you get ahead of me that places me in danger.

He’s talking about society in general but, of course, this applies to academia, too—academia definitely pours ego itching powder on us regularly.

Hari also talks about research that was done asking whether people can set out to make themselves happier if they try. (This is about 30 minutes into the episode.) The answer is: not if they live in the US, but yes in several other countries where this has been studied. The reason for the difference is that, in the US, we try to make ourselves happier by doing something for ourselves—maybe we buy ourselves a new pair of shoes or some chocolate or something like that—or worse, as the podcast host Dan Harris suggested: we try to crush our enemies at work. Hari compares this to trying to get your legs out of quicksand by reaching your arms and trying to grab your legs—it just makes things worse.

In contrast, in the other countries that were studied (Russia, Japan, and Taiwan), people were able to make themselves happier. That’s because in those countries, people try to make themselves happier by doing something for someone else—a friend, a family member, their community. Doing things for other people ends up making you feel happier.

Right after listening to this, I had a day where someone seagulled something research-related that I had worked on for years and was proud of—he swooped in, shit all over it, and then flew off to leave me to deal with the mess.* It made me feel bad for the rest of the day. I slept terribly, and I still felt bad the next day.

It turns out, though, that my schedule that day was filled with projects related to graduate student mental health. I was working on two different but related projects that are aimed at better supporting graduate student mental health. I spent the day working hard on them, and, at the end of the day, realized I was feeling good and hadn’t devoted any mental energy to Mr. Seagull since I had started working on the mental health projects. It doesn’t mean that what he did was okay—it wasn’t—but it was interesting to me how little it was bothering me after I’d focused on these other projects.

As I’ve been reflecting on this, I’ve been thinking about Brian’s old post on whether deans are making the same error as hen breeders. We have largely set up a culture in academia where we not only pour ego itching powder all over everyone all the time, but we also often inadvertently select against working collaboratively and trying to boost each other.

I know that I am incredibly fortunate to be in a position where I have a lot of flexibility in terms of what I work on—where I have the flexibility to choose to devote a substantial amount of time to working on projects such as the ones on student mental health. But I think this general idea can apply differently to different people at different career stages.

A year or so ago, I was on a panel with a graduate student, Leslie Decker, who said she wished someone had told her right at the start of grad school that others’ success would not prevent her own. She noted that success is not finite, and the ability of those around you to succeed does not detract from your own progress. She suggested that we should take heart in that fact and support one another.

She’s right.

 

 

* For the birders, yes, I am aware that “seagull” is not a technical term and that some of you will argue with this characterization of gulls. For folks in Britain who are aware of another meaning of the term “seagull”, yes, I am aware of it, too. I do not care about either of these objections to the term.

Why I told a room of 300 people that I see a therapist

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.

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I couldn’t make it in academia without my invisible support network

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.

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Stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment: do students think others are judging them more than they actually are?

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.

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More on what colleges must do to promote mental health for graduate students

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).

  1. 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!)

  1. It’s good to think about what individual students can do, but we need to also address systemic barriers to mental health

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Do you know a department/program/university/institute/etc. that is doing something worth emulating regarding graduate student 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:

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