Mental health can take many forms, and people who work in high-stress environments are prone to experience mental health issues. There is a mental wellbeing crisis in academia, one that has been documented in multiple recent studies of graduate students and a few studies of teaching staff. Problems (and their solutions) exist, and both at the individual and community level, though triggers can be difficult to identify and resources can be difficult to find and access. As mental health issues can and do affect people at all career levels, everyone from students to profs are encouraged to educate themselves on how to sustain positive mental wellbeing practices and how to build a system of support.
Though I’m not a trained mental health professional in any way, I have led seminars and discussions on mental health and wellbeing in academia, particularly for early-career researchers like graduate students and postdocs. I’ve compiled lists of internet resources, shared below, based on the presented material. Slides from seminars/discussions with the physics & astronomy department at MSU, the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics 2019 at MSU, and Women in Physics Canada 2019 conference are at the links. You can book me for a workshop for your group or event.
You’ll notice that I prefer the phrase “mental wellbeing”, not “mental health” — there are other concerns for academics beyond formal mental health problems and mental illnesses, like loneliness and homesickness, which I want to be sure to include. Disclaimer: I am an astronomy postdoc, not a mental health professional. This is peer-to-peer advice and my personal (non-expert) opinion.
Content warning: depression, anxiety, other mental illness, suicide
I’ve compiled a list of studies and summarized their individual major findings here. The big take-aways:
- Graduate students are at least twice as likely to experience negative mental wellbeing, especially depression and anxiety, compared to a similarly educated non-graduate-school population
- Gender & sexuality minorities had significantly higher rates of problems than cis-men
- Work and organizational context (including satisfaction with mentorship/advising) are significant predictors of grad students’ mental health
- Professors and teaching staff are burning out and experiencing way too much stress
- Postdocs are also experiencing way too much stress
- Everyone’s too stressed, which is bad in and of itself, but it also exacerbates other negative mental health patterns.
- The excessive stress generally comes from systematic pressures, and these pressures do not ease up at higher career stages
Crisis hotlines and remote support
You don’t need to be thinking of suicide to be in crisis and need someone to talk to.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (US): +1-800-273-8255 (live chat also available on website; hearing-impaired TTY users can also dial 800-799-4889)
- National Crisis Text Line: text/SMS HOME to 741741 for US; to 686868 for Canada; to 85258 for the UK
- Crisis Services Canada: +1-833-456-4566 (text/SMS and live chat also available on website)
- Samaritans (UK and Ireland): +44 116 123 (email also available on website)
- The Trevor Project (US): +1-866-488-7386 (text/SMS and live chat also available on website; the lifeline will talk with any individual regardless of sexuality or gender)
- Trans Lifeline: US: +1-877-565-8860; Canada: +1-877-330-6366
University and in-person resources
- Student counseling center at campus health clinic: at-risk/crisis, getting started with therapy/counseling
- Depending on size/funding of the counseling center, you might be referred to an off-campus long-term therapist after only a few meetings. This is ok! They want you to access the help you need, within your means, and within the reach/scope of the counseling center.
- Check website for links to 24/7 emergency services like hotlines, local domestic violence shelter, food cupboard, etc.
- Ask your doctor for a referral to a therapist (who will accept your university health insurance, if applicable)
- Search the internet for sliding-scale/sliding-fee/pay-what-you-can counseling in your area
- Talk with peers, trusted colleague, and/or mentor (in your department or elsewhere)
- If looking to re-vamp university-level services: “Customizing Mental Health Information and Services for Graduate Students”
At Michigan State University:
- See this page for a list of mental health resources for MSU students and employees
- Personal and professional support resources on the MSU astro group website
Supervision is related to mental wellbeing in academia, because someone’s satisfaction with their workplace environment (including supervision, advising, and mentorship) is a significant indicator of their mental wellbeing. Mentoring agreements are a useful starting point when forming a new mentoring relationship, since they provide the structure for individualized management (e.g., feedback styles, the level and type of supervision). These are intended to be the beginning of a continuous conversation, not a full and complete one-off conversation. You can use it as a template for a verbal mutual agreement, or write your own and actually sign it (the former is much more common). Change whatever language or context don’t fit your research field. In order of most to least thorough: Example 1 from the American Association of Medical Colleges; example 2 from U. Alabama Birmingham; example 3 from U. Nebraska Lincoln.
- “Ten simple rules for developing a mentor–mentee expectations document” by Masters and Kreeger 2017, PLoS Computational Biology
- “Good Advising” by Prof. Jason Wright
- “For grad students and postdocs, mental health begins with faculty”
- “The Invisible Injuries of Faculty Mental Health”
- “Aftermath of a Professor’s Suicide”
- “How a student’s panic attack changed my approach to teaching”
- The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity: productivity and wellbeing resources for researchers and mentors (your university may have institution access)
- What to say when someone opens up to you about a mental health problem (tips for talking, simple scripts)
- Know what resources your university has to point your mentees towards (and to use yourself! See more below)
- In some countries, mentors (including teaching assistants) are mandatory reporters, meaning that if a student tells you that they’ve been sexually harassed, you have to report it to your superior or a university office. If you are a mandatory reporter, inform your students and strongly encourage them to go to the counseling center to get support in a way that will not initiate a (sometimes re-traumatizing) legal procedure.
The concept of boundaries is brought up in some of the mentorship agreement templates. These boundaries can include not discussing details of mental health and details of other personal problems, since professors/PIs may be uncomfortable dealing with something that is both very important and outside the scope of their own training. It may also be a sensitive topic for them due to personal or familial experiences with poor mental health. Both mentor and mentee should discuss what they’re comfortable with in the context of their professional relationship. Finally, all of this mentorship advice is assuming good faith of both parties. If this is not the case, please seek advice and/or intervention from a more-senior-to-you group member, a trusted colleague, and/or health counseling services.
You can’t (nor should you have to) meditate your way out of the structural failures in academia, but some of these coping mechanisms can still be helpful and valuable for individuals.
- Self Care with Drs. Sarah, a podcast (see especially the ‘Meltdown’ episode)
- The Hilarious World of Depression, a podcast
- YouTube Yoga: “Yoga with Adriene”, “Fightmaster Yoga”
- “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” by Dr. D.D. Burns, a book on doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy on yourself, recommended by therapists
- “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” by Anne Helen Petersen, validating though maddening
- “The PTSD Workbook” by Dr. M.B. Williams and Dr. S. Pouijula, recommended by social workers and therapists
- “Living Well With Depression and Bipolar Disorder” by J. McManamy
- American Astronomical Society Working Group on Accessibility and Disability (WGAD): they can be a resource for (physical and metaphorical) structural concerns
- #PhDchat, #ECRchat, @chron_ac, @AcademicChatter on Twitter
- “5 Things to Do (And Not Do) to Support Someone with Depression”
- MakeItOK.org: conversation scripts, posters, stats
Articles with advice and perspectives
- “I’d Whisper to My Student Self: You Are Not Alone”
- “Modest Advice for New Graduate Students”
- “20 Warning Signs Your Professor’s Abusing You”
- “Opening Up About Stress in Graduate School”
- “It’s time for physicists to talk about mental health”
- “Mental health in academia is too often a forgotten footnote”
- “Mental Health Issues Among Graduate Students”
- “Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?” (part 1 of 5)
- “I wish we could talk more openly about mental health in academia”
- Wear Your Voice’s guide to de-stigmatizing mental illnesses
- “A Cartoonist’s Playful and Pragmatic Mental Health Guide”
- “81 Awesome Mental Health Resources When You Can’t Afford a Therapist”
- “14 Free and Low-Cost Mental Health Resources”
- The category archives for “mental illness and academia” on the blog The Professor Is In
- The category archives for “academia & mental health” on the blog “The New Academic”
- Really good advice columns like Captain Awkward, Ask Polly, Ask A Manager
- “We Cannot Continue to Overlook ‘High-Functioning’ Depression”
- “This Is What It’s Like To Live With High-Functioning Depression”
- “Letitia Wright Opens Up About Her Struggles With Depression, Advocates For Black Mental Health Awareness”
- “Learning That Depression Lies: My Mental Health Management Strategy”
- “A Day With: Depression”
- “A Day With: Social Anxiety”; “A Day With: Panic Attacks”
- “How I Learned to Make Friends with My Anxiety”
- “Anxiety Is An Invalid Excuse” (don’t worry about the title, this is a great read)
- “How To Talk Yourself Down From An Anxiety Spiral”
- “Grappling with graduate student mental health and suicide”
- Mental Health Awareness Week 2018 focusing on coping with stress
- “Why ADHD Is A Feminist Issue And What Happens When It’s Overlooked”
- “10 Signs That Made Me Realize I Was An Alcoholic”
- “Beat the Burnout”
- “Can Science Save Us From a Failed State of Burnout?”
- “Here’s What ‘Millennial Burnout’ is Like for 16 Different People”
- “Impostor Syndrome Isn’t The Problem — Toxic Workplaces Are”
- “How to Define Success for Yourself”
- “How Do You Keep Social Media From Destroying Your Mental Health?”
- “23 Ways to Treat Yourself Without Buying or Eating Anything”
- “Is That Self-Care or Self-Sabotage?”
- “What Nobody Tells You About Self-Care”
- “You Feel Like Shit”: an interactive flowchart (also useful in a crisis)
- “Non-Binary People Share Their Self-Care Tips”
- @tinycarebot and @selfcare_tech on Twitter
Remember that the most valuable self-care is building a life from which you don’t feel a regular need to escape.
If you have a favourite resource that you find really helpful but I didn’t list, you can contact me. Again, I’m an astronomy postdoc, not a mental health professional. This is peer-to-peer advice and my personal (non-expert) opinion.