Dealing with Mental Health in Academia
Working in science can sometimes be an arduous, solitary journey. While being a graduate student is challenging enough, the pressure is ratcheted up when one is a postdoc. A postdoctoral fellow, or postdoc, conducts mentored research after obtaining a doctoral degree, prior to moving on to a more permanent position. Postdocs are expected to generate scads of data while also carving out time to write grants and mentor trainees. The chronic pressure and competitive environment can also exacerbate one’s imposter syndrome, with its attendant feelings of crippling anxiety and self-doubt. For those without an adequate support system and, oftentimes, with underlying mental health issues, it can all be too much to handle. Indeed, studies show that mental health issues are all too common among graduate students and postdocs. A recent study in Nature Biotechnology reported that as many as 41 percent of graduate students suffered from anxiety and 39 percent suffered from depression, with female and transgender/gender non-conforming students reporting significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression (1). Another study, published in Stress and Health, reported that 58 percent of surveyed postdocs were languishing and 29 percent were depressed (2).
For me, things came to a head last year as I struggled to focus on routine lab tasks and found myself besieged with flashbacks to past trauma. I knew it was time to seek out help, so I reached out to two resources available to trainees on campus: the Faculty & Staff Assistance Program (FASAP) and University Mental Health Services. I am immensely thankful that I was able to speak to someone in a safe environment, and wish I’d done so sooner. Since then, I’ve discovered additional ways to deal with mental health issues. Below, I write about some of the measures that have helped lighten my burden somewhat. However, it is important to note that if one suffers from more serious mental health issues such as depression, some of these measures may not be as effective and may require more extensive therapy.
Seek Out On-Campus Resources
Johns Hopkins offers a variety of free resources to students (the Johns Hopkins Student Assistance Program) and employees (Faculty & Staff Assistance Program). The Student Assistance Program offers brief counseling sessions and may refer you to other professionals if necessary. Their website also lists coping mechanisms for foreign students, financial planning tips and suggestions for effective study habits. Similarly, the FASAP website also has resources for what to do if you feel a co-worker is in distress and may need help. University Health Services – Mental Health treats more serious mental health issues requiring multiple sessions; these are confidential and free of charge. They also have a number you can call for urgent mental health concerns on the weekend or after-hours.
In the Stress and Health article referenced above, the authors suggest that in order to avoid developing clinical levels of anxiety or depression, one must develop resilience by resorting to positive “adaptive coping” strategies, such as positive reframing (viewing one’s situation in a positive light), planning (coming up with a strategy to deal with problems) and active coping (focusing on action directed at improving one’s situation). They cautioned against “maladaptive coping” mechanisms: self-distraction, denial, venting, substance use, behavioral disengagement and self-blame.
Stop to Smell the Roses
When work pressures start to feel overwhelming, it may be helpful to step out of the lab occasionally. Carving out time for fun activities can help you gain a sense of perspective and give students an opportunity to reflect on problems outside the work environment. Getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising can also go a long way toward helping one feel better.
Speak to People Around You
It is easy to bottle up negative feelings; but the act of opening up ever so slightly to one’s co-workers can be liberating. Statements like, “I’m having a rough day,” can invite commiseration. Sometimes that’s all it takes to ease one’s burden. Getting actively involved in communal activities, such as a graduate or postdoctoral association, can also restore one’s sense of purpose. The Nature Biotechnology study suggests trainees seek out career development resources, since these frequently teach coping skills that overlap with good mental health practices. This paper also calls for destigmatization of mental health issues and recommends a “train the trainers” model wherein supervisors provide a nurturing environment for trainees to speak up about their mental health issues. Although not all students or postdocs may feel comfortable discussing these things with their mentor, it can be helpful to tell your research adviser if you are feeling burned out or that your mental health is struggling as a direct result of your work. A good mentor should understand that a mentally healthy student or postdoc is going to be more productive and add more to the lab environment than one who is struggling or in a dangerous mindset.
Although I waited for my mental health to deteriorate to a point where day-to-day functioning became challenging, I urge others not to do so. Use some of the strategies outlined above, or seek out help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or are depressed, remember that you’re far from alone in your predicament, and that there are a host of resources and people who can help you feel better.
- Evans TM, Bira L, Gastelum JB, Weiss LT, Vanderford NL. Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nat Biotechnol. 2018 6;36:282.
- Gloria CT, Steinhardt MA. Relationships Among Positive Emotions, Coping, Resilience and Mental Health. Stress Heal. 2016;32(2):145–56.