Managing Mental Health in Academia
Numerous surveys have found that students in academia often suffer high levels of mental health problems. Kat Ross shares her personal experiences and several ways that we can all work together to improve this growing and often debilitating problem amongst our communities.
In 2019 I moved to Perth to start my PhD. Even at the time, I knew this was a big step, and so I took proactive steps to set up a support system for my mental health.
Wow, am I glad I did.
Mere months later I was diagnosed with anxiety. Would this have been discovered if I hadn’t taken the initiative to protect my mental health? I will forever be grateful to my past self for taking the early steps to look out for my well being.
Because in 2020 I was also diagnosed with depression.
I was only able to get this diagnosis and help when I needed it most because I already had that support system in place and because I had taken time to choose supervisors I was comfortable discussing these issues with.
The thing is, when talking with academics and people who had or were doing a postgraduate degree, most seemed to personally relate and understand that this was almost ‘inevitable’ when doing postgraduate research.
Indeed, Nature has completed several surveys of postgraduate students to assess their satisfaction and mental health. The most recent of which, performed in 2019, found 36% of respondents had sought help for anxiety or depression directly related to their studies.
But here’s the thing about inevitability: if something is going to happen, that means we know about it. And if we know about it …We can prevent it.
And if something is preventable then that means someone needs to be in charge of preventing it.
Mental health disorders should not and can not be some kind of permanent requirement of postgraduate students. If mood disorders are so prevalent, then what is currently being done to protect students who are already so vulnerable to issues relating to mental health?
For the most part (at least in my experience), discussions of mental health in academia are surface level. Students are told to “take care of your mental health”, but there is never any follow-through on this request. There is no formal system where the mental health of students is assessed and no formal checks to ensure there is sufficient support for them should they need it.
Students are left to flounder and find these resources on their own or rely on having a supervisor who is perceptive enough to notice symptoms of poor mental health. Far too often, poor mental health is left under the radar until it culminates into a much larger problem when it could’ve been caught and helped earlier.
Now that it’s a new year and many new students are beginning their postgraduate studies. There are several things I would love to see implemented in institutions to aid current and incoming students:
Mental Health Checks
Most postgraduate degrees have regular “milestones” or checkpoints to mark the student's progress and ensure they are on track to finish on time. It would be so simple to include checkpoints that assess the student's mental health and their access to help and resources needed for them
Compulsory Mental Health Training
Mental health issues can be compounded for people in minority groups, for example, it is far more likely for women and people of colour to struggle with Imposter Syndrome. Having supervisors and people in the lab who are not only trained to notice symptoms of poor mental health but also understand how people's mental state can be influenced as a result of their personal history, background, sexual orientation, gender identity etc. can be a game-changer.
Open Discussions about Mental Health In Institutions
I’ve had enough of the seminars that tell students to “prioritise sleep”, “set healthy work hours” and “practice meditation” while ignoring the toxic institutions that overlook the negative environment for everyone. This may be a long term goal, but I dream of one-day seeing research groups and institutions creating safe spaces for everyone to ask for help and find the resources they need. As part of these changes, we need to also seek advice from, include and incorporate the services of mental health professionals.
2020 was particularly rough for many of us, but poor mental health has been on the rise for students for a long time. Let’s start taking immediate and proactive steps to provide targeted mental health support. I hope that we can learn from the last year and head into 2021 wiser and working towards helping students with their mental health.
If you wish to access resources and support, the following services are available across Australia:
Lifeline - 13 11 14
BeyondBlue - 1300 224 636
Mindspot - 1800 614 434
QLife - 1800 184 527
Further information, including website links and operating hours about these services (and more), can be found on the Australian Government Health Direct website.
Growing up, Kat used to watch the International Space Station going overhead with her family. Until she learned people live inside it and she became forever terrified of poop falling on her head from space. Thankfully, today Kat’s skills at staring up into the Universe have improved significantly.
She is now a Ph.D. candidate at Curtin University studying the baby black holes in the centres of distant galaxies trying to understand galaxy evolution and the history of our Universe. Kat has a background in optical interferometry of red giant stars, dark matter content of galaxies and physics education research. She is an activist for Women In STEM and works as a science communicator when not staring at distant baby black holes or fleeing from space poop.