Shhh, We Can’t Talk About That: Is Mental Health an Academic Taboo?

There aren’t very many taboo subjects when you’re a scientist. As an anthropologist, at some point I’m likely to have a very serious discussion about body decomposition, lemur poop, primate sperm competition--you name it. As researchers, we’re able to set aside some of our social or personal discomfort in the name of asking relevant scientific questions, and that’s as it should be. Otherwise, we end up ignoring potentially rich bodies of evidence. But there’s at least one topic that we still have some trouble addressing with frankness: our own mental health. It’s an uncomfortable topic no matter what field of academia you inhabit. In previous posts, my labmates have talked to you about some fantastic research they’re involved in, and I’m not departing here from the scientific nature of this blog. But research is performed by people, and in order to maximize our ability to contribute to our respective fields, it is crucial that we get a handle on what it is about academia that makes us so susceptible to mental health concerns, and more importantly, what we can do to address it collectively.

Before I dive into some of the literature on this subject, allow me to explain why this is a very personal topic for me. I have struggled with depression for over ten years, and I have seen it aggravated by the conditions in which I work. I actively sought counseling for the first time when I was 21, and I have found that it resurges at its worst when I am under heavy academic and career stress. Based on my discussions with other academics (both current and former), I have come to the realization that this is hardly uncommon. So what is it about academia that may act as an aggravating circumstance for those of us who are already vulnerable, and indeed may create new complications for those who have never experienced problems with their mental health before?

Let’s Dig Through Some Psychology

Despite the difficulty that many academics have had in discussing mental health, our acknowledgment of it is getting better. From both a personal and a professional perspective, people are starting to pay attention. There have been a number of expositions on mental health in the past several years appearing in popular and scientific publications such as The Atlantic (Patterson, 2016), Science (Arnold, 2014), Nature (Sohn, 2016), and New Scientist (Wilcox, 2014). Science blogs are also jumping into the conversation with personal stories and advice, including “Small Pond Science” and “Watershed Moments”. The discussion is happening in isolated forums, but for the most part it has yet to become widespread among departments and professional organizations.

I was curious about the actual prevalence of mental health issues in academia, so I did a little digging into the psychological literature. As a biological anthropologist, this is not a place I often find myself. I sought some assistance from my good friend Lauren N. Meyer, a doctoral candidate in School Psychology at the University of Arizona who studies mindfulness and good mental health practices in academic atmospheres. Based on what we found, it is clear that psychological interest in this subject is growing.

From the literature, it is evident that graduate students experience mental illness symptoms at higher rates than the general population (some of them more than double) (Rummell, 2015). The stress is not limited to those in graduate student positions, however. One study of medical professors in the Netherlands suggests that constant pressures of publication are significantly associated with burn-out (Tijdink et al., 2013). While issues of mental health problems and stress are certainly not limited to STEM fields, Lipson et al. (2016) found that graduate students in certain fields associated with STEM (namely engineering) were less likely to seek mental health treatment than other disciplines. Their study also shows that the prevalence of mental illness among the natural sciences fits into the trends of most other disciplines, with 35.75% for undergraduates, 25.94% for master’s students, and 27.29% for doctoral students. This expands upon findings from Wyatt & Oswalt (2013), which suggest that undergraduates also self-report experiencing mental health problems at higher rates than graduate students, though they are widespread among both groups (and in fact, graduate students report higher rates of stress in general). Both domestic and international graduate students seem to experience mental health problems at roughly the same rates, though international students are less likely to know about their institutional resources to seek help (Hyun et al., 2007).

While this is not an exhaustive review of the literature, there are patterns that stand out. Despite focusing on different groups in academia, the psychological literature generally converges on the conclusion that academics experience a higher prevalence of mental health issues than the general population in the U.S. (for an overview of depression specifically, see National Institute of Health, 2015). So, we know there’s a problem in academia. But why?

Wyatt & Oswalt (2013) note that previous studies have indicated that graduate student stressors generally include their schoolwork and research, their assistantships (see Mazzola et al., 2011), financial and family issues, and career planning. Work overload is a consistent theme (Oswalt & Riddock, 2007; Mazzola et al., 2011; Wyatt & Oswalt, 2013), with graduate students in one study indicating that they had difficulty managing their stress effectively at a rate of 31.9% (Oswalt & Riddock, 2007). They also tend to be more detached from campus life (Wyatt & Oswalt, 2013), and indeed loneliness shows up as a participant-identified stressor in at least one survey (Oswalt & Riddock, 2007). Poor self-perception (the often-discussed “imposter syndrome”) is also a known factor in graduate student mental health issues (Conley et al., 2015), as are fears of a poor job market upon graduation (Wyatt & Oswalt, 2013; summarized in McKenna, 2016). Even if the elusive post-graduate school career is acquired, stress as a result of institutional research and publication demands (e.g., Tijdink et al., 2013) may continue to exacerbate mental health issues. While very little research has been performed regarding mental health past the doctoral stage within academia, accounts of the research, publishing, and teaching stress (and how to deal with it) can be found from personal perspectives (e.g., Nagpal, 2013).

Does Science Have To Be My Everything?

Now to the heart of the matter: we know academia can be a difficult climate for mental health, so what can we do about it?

One aspect of scientific research that unquestionably needs adjustment is the science-is-your-life mentality. Now, stay with me here. If you are a scientist, yes, you should have passion for what you do. However, that does not mean it should be your entire life. As I was scrolling through my Twitter feed recently, I was engrossed in a discussion about this very topic. As a current doctoral student who hopes to find a decent job someday, some of the rhetoric in this discussion was pretty distressing. Let me first state that most of the discussion’s participants advocated balance (for an example, see Dr. Terry McGlynn’s excellent response post here). But there were several very vocal researchers who argued that, if you aren’t willing to devote most (if not all) of your life to your research, you shouldn’t be in science.

There are a lot of issues there to unpack, and some of them I will leave to you. Where I take particular issue with this research-is-everything perspective is that it is extraordinarily unfeasible for most people, particularly those who have children or family members who need care. This mindset burdens different groups of academics unequally, perpetuating disparities that already exist within our fields. When senior researchers make statements like these, it can be potentially damaging. It makes those of us who are junior feel like we will never succeed if we don’t conform to an unrealistic ideal. We then pass this attitude on to our own peers and, later, students. It is, in that sense, self-perpetuating.

Scientists need the freedom to be multi-faceted individuals. Having hobbies and interests outside of research shouldn’t just be accepted, it should be the norm. Those outside interests not only promote good mental health, they also provide respite from work, giving opportunities for creativity and insight that constant research may interrupt. This is particularly true for those who already have mental health issues. I have run into serious problems when I tried to be that scientist who works every waking hour. When I ran into hurdles that made me doubt myself, instead of it just being a hiccup, it was a disaster. I would feel like a total failure when the only thing I was focused on - my research or my coursework - went awry. I realize that there are plenty of individuals who cope well with these circumstances, but I want to shed some light on the fact that this isn’t the case for many others. Suggesting that tunnel-visioned science is the only way to succeed is unfortunate for everyone, and for some it can be an outright dangerous way to live.

Mental Health and…Measurement Theory?

It’s easy to shrug people off when they say, “You need balance!” No matter what your career stage, you’re always trying to prove yourself in some way, and balance seems like an afterthought. But allow me to take an analogy from measurement theory to demonstrate why more isn’t always more.

Right now my research consists of analyzing dental measurements, so let’s say I wanted to take the mesiodistal (that’s front to back) measurement of an individual’s first lower molar. I might not be too confident in my accuracy if I only took one measurement, so naturally I’d take the same measurement more than once. But how much is too much? As Falconer & Mackay (1996) demonstrate in their work on quantitative genetics, any gain in accuracy from repeated measurements generally plateaus quickly after just a few trials. We hit a point of diminishing returns. 

Similarly, the returns from what we put into our science may also hit a plateau. This is where measurement theory mirrors academic balance. Making time for yourself to do other things and to care about other things is not only good for your mental health, it is likely to extend to your work. Even the business world may be starting to recognize this, as suggested by a recent article in the Harvard Business Review (Carmichael, 2015). More work does not mean better work. And that is effort that could be directed elsewhere, especially away from the lab.

What Can I Do Now?

Every person is different in their mental health needs, and nobody on this blog is a mental health professional. I can only offer broad suggestions, the most important of which is to make sure you have something else in your life that you are passionate about, something outside of your research. For myself, at least, I’ve learned that it is also critical to have something to look forward to - something with a definite date, not just a nebulous “maybe at some point I’ll do this” sort of plan. Maybe it’s an upcoming movie release, a weekly lunch with a friend, or a vacation to see family. This is something new I’ve been trying, and it has really helped (in psychological terms, this is called “behavioral activation”). My chosen activity: every Friday, the graduate students in my department go to happy hour together. Even if I’ve been having a rough week, I look forward to this because I get to just relax and chat with my friends. Last year I almost never went, and in retrospect this was a mistake. These little things are important, and even just a few hours to decompress make a difference.

For those who need help beyond perfecting their life-balancing act, the American Psychological Association has a number of suggested resources, including web pages specifically devoted to depression, anxiety, and emotional health. Seeking counseling at your institutional health center or an outside source is also a possible outlet. While every counselor and every counseling center is different, I have found regular counseling appointments to be extremely helpful - for me, this experience has included two universities and a private counseling center. Some of the pressure I put on myself has been alleviated just by having someone outside of my academic bubble to talk to.

Come Be A Mental Health Advocate at AAPA!

If you’re a biological anthropologist attending the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in New Orleans, good news! There is a panel on mental health in academia from 12:30-2:00 PM on Thursday, April 20th in Riverview I - look for it in the final program under the title “Ending the Silence on Mental Health in Biological Anthropology.” We hope you will come and show your support as we identify risk factors, resources, and ways to improve the culture of academia to be more supportive of mental health issues.

Mental health is deeply personal, but there are things we can do collectively to help those who need it. Providing a community that is more open and accepting regarding mental health concerns is the key. While we have a long way to go, there are many in academia who are advocating for a cultural shift.

Let’s talk. Let’s see solutions proposed and implemented. Let’s be better scientists by being better selves.

Special thanks for this blog post goes to Lauren N. Meyer, whose help in pursuing psychological research was instrumental and greatly appreciated.


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