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Grappling with graduate student mental health and suicide

The stress of grad school means that open discussions and training are vital

by Jyllian Kemsley
August 7, 2017 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 95, ISSUE 32

Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN/Shutterstock

In the spring of 2016, Scripps Research Institute California graduate student Anna Owensby texted a friend: “I have this feeling right now that there isn’t really a place for me ... People like me aren’t supposed to get a Ph.D., we are addicts or homeless or in jail.”

In brief

Last year, Scripps Research Institute California graduate student Anna Owensby killed herself. Graduate school is hard at the best of times, and it can become overwhelming when students are faced with situations such as having a dispute with an adviser or not passing a milestone such as a qualifying exam. One recent study found that 7.3% of graduate students had suicidal thoughts. But there are practices that advisers, departments, and schools can put in place to support their students’ mental health.

Owensby, 26, was a fourth-year graduate student. In her first years at Scripps, she was briefly hospitalized to evaluate her mental health, and she changed lab groups. Her new adviser, Scripps molecular medicine professor Dennis W. Wolan, had assisted in finding her a therapy group that seemed to be helping her. The group was not in Owensby’s insurance network, but Scripps was paying for the sessions. She passed her Ph.D. candidacy exam at the end of 2015, at which time her committee members indicated that she was progressing appropriately and that they had no nonacademic concerns about her.

Then, in the space of just a few weeks in spring 2016, Owensby was banned from Wolan’s lab and told not to contact him or her lab mates. She was encouraged to resign from Scripps and informed that Wolan would not give her a job recommendation.

On April 14, 2016, Owensby died by suicide.

There is no one situation or event that makes a person suicidal, experts in suicide risk and prevention emphasize. “We always want to come up with one cause, but it doesn’t work that way,” says Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. People end their lives when a number of conditions and factors come together to make someone feel overwhelmed and unable to cope.

Nonetheless, there are concrete steps that academic advisers, departments, and schools can take to better support their graduate students’ mental health and reduce the risk of losing people like Owensby.

In a video produced by the University of Minnesota Community of Chemistry Graduate Students, chemistry professor Christopher Cramer discusses his struggle with depression during graduate school.
Credit: U Minnesota Community of Chemistry Graduate Students
In a video produced by the University of Minnesota Community of Chemistry Graduate Students, chemistry professor Christopher Cramer discusses his struggle with depression during graduate school.
Credit: U Minnesota Community of Chemistry Graduate Students

Risk factors

In 2015, the rate of death by suicide for people ages 20 to 34 in the U.S. was between 15 and 16 people per 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Suicide is one of the five most common causes of death for people ages 15 to 44 years.

Long-term factors that increase the risk that someone might attempt suicide include a psychiatric diagnosis, substance use disorder, childhood trauma, and family history of suicide.

Few studies have investigated mental health problems and suicide in Ph.D. students specifically. One survey of 3,659 students in Belgium suggests that 32% of Ph.D. students are at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder such as depression (Res. Policy 2017, DOI: 10.1016/j.respol.2017.02.008). A separate survey of 301 graduate students at Emory University determined that more than 34% likely had moderate to severe depression, while 7.3% reported suicidal thoughts, and 2.3% reported having plans for suicide (Acad. Psychiatry 2014, DOI: 10.1007/s40596-014-0041-y). “The rates of mental health issues in this population are elevated pretty significantly above the general population,” says Nathan L. Vanderford, assistant dean for academic development in the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.

In addition to the long-term factors that increase suicide risk, short-term issues such as life transitions and stress also play a role, experts say. Not unlike starting college, the transition to graduate school can involve significant life upheaval—but without the large number of support staff and peers that undergraduates encounter when moving to campus.

Graduate students instead might move to a new location to live in an apartment alone or with a rarely seen roommate and then interact mostly with a relatively small set of classmates and lab mates in one or two buildings. As time goes on, other events can disrupt a student’s world: An adviser loses a grant, doesn’t get tenure, or chooses to move, or a student fails to pass a milestone such as an oral exam. Meanwhile, family and friends might not understand the unique experience of graduate school.

And the stakes are high. “Students are putting so much effort and energy into pursuing the degree that every single step can carry a lot of weight. Certainly there’s fear of failure or perception of failure,” says Christa Labouliere, a clinical psychology professor and administrator for a suicide prevention program at New York State Psychiatric Institute, which is part of Columbia University Medical Center.

Anna’s story

A year after Anna Owensby died, her mother, Victoria Owensby, sobs when she tries to talk about her. “She was so funny, her heart was so kind, and she was beautiful and brilliant,” Victoria says.

Anna Owensby was valedictorian of her high school class and a talented cellist who enjoyed playing music composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. After high school, she initially attended Cleveland Institute of Music. Students at the institute take nonmusic electives at nearby Case Western Reserve University. After a general chemistry class, Owensby reconsidered her career path—“she didn’t think she could make money playing the cello,” her mother says—and Owensby wound up switching to a chemistry major at Case.


Percentage of Ph.D. students who are at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder such as depression, according to a 2017 study.
Source: Res. Policy 2017, DOI: 10.1016/j.respol.2017.02.008


Percentage of surveyed graduate students who reported having plans to attempt suicide, according to a 2014 study.
Source: Acad. Psychiatry 2014, DOI: 10.1007/s40596-014-0041-y

15 to 16

People ages 20–34 per 100,000 who died by suicide in the U.S. in 2015.
Source: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention


People who attempt suicide for every person who dies by suicide.
Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

As an undergraduate, Owensby stood out for her enthusiasm and work ethic, says Case chemistry professor Gregory Tochtrop, who taught Owensby organic chemistry before recruiting her to do research in his lab. “She was incredibly smart,” Tochtrop says. After discussing a research idea, she would track down and read all the same papers a more seasoned scientist would look up. “She had the mind-set of ‘I’m going to learn something about this so that I can contribute to it,’ ” he says.

But Owensby had difficulties as well. Growing up in Greenville, S.C., she was a tough child to parent, often losing emotional control when faced with even minor setbacks, her family says. One of Owensby’s aunts, Amy Forton, is a mental health counselor and says Owensby exhibited severe anxiety. “She wasn’t depressed, though,” Forton believes. “She was happy and interested in things in life.”

Nevertheless, Owensby’s difficulty regulating her emotions was significant enough that her mother sought psychological help for her daughter. The therapists “just said she was really, really smart and overly perfectionist and sensitive,” her mother says. “They never said anything about any mental illness, ever.”

There were mental health issues in Owensby’s family. Her father had alcoholism and died of liver disease while she was in college. Tochtrop believes that the challenges of growing up with her father’s alcoholism and then losing him led Owensby to look for father figures. Owensby tried to push for a more personal connection in an otherwise professional relationship with him, Tochtrop says. Early in college, Owensby would turn to Tochtrop to talk for hours about her life history and problems. “It wasn’t anything inappropriate, but I think she was looking for things she didn’t have,” Tochtrop says.

When Owensby was a junior, Tochtrop—at the time an assistant professor who had a wife in law school, a baby, and an approaching tenure decision—felt he had to draw a line. He told Owensby that he couldn’t help her with personal matters, but he was happy to support her career. Owensby seemed to take the message well, and after the conversation “we still had a really good professional relationship,” he says.

Owensby used Case counseling services, Tochtrop says, but he doesn’t know further details. Once, he noticed that she had been cutting herself. Despite her personal challenges, Owensby graduated from Case having earned several university awards, including one for best thesis in undergraduate chemistry research.

Owensby started at Scripps in 2012. Details of her time there are based on materials provided by and interviews with her family and Tochtrop, who stayed in close touch after she left Case. Scripps refused C&EN’s request to interview institute personnel about Owensby and the school’s programs to support students’ mental health. In a statement, Vice President for Communications and Development Cara Miller said, “All universities are faced with the challenge of wanting to provide the utmost support for members of their community who may be in need of assistance, while also maintaining their privacy and adhering to legal requirements.” Owensby’s mother has filed a complaint with Scripps’s accrediting commission because although the institute has given her Owensby’s educational records, it has withheld disciplinary records.

Credit: Courtesy of Anna Owensby’s family
Anna Owensby (center) with her mother, Victoria Owensby, and her brother, Adam Owensby.

During her first years at graduate school, Owensby diagnosed herself with borderline personality disorder (BPD). In January 2015, she began a form of cognitive behavioral therapy with the support of her adviser, Wolan, and Scripps. The director of the therapy center that Owensby used, Milton Z. Brown of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center of San Diego, did not respond to voice mail messages left by C&EN.

The National Institute of Mental Health describes BPD as “a serious mental disorder marked by a pattern of ongoing instability in moods, behavior, self-image, and functioning.” People with BPD often exhibit impulsive actions and have unstable relationships. They go through episodes of anger, depression, and anxiety that can last only a few hours or as long as days. Because Brown did not return C&EN’s calls, C&EN was unable to determine whether Owensby’s therapists agreed with her self-diagnosis.

An unfortunate consequence of Wolan’s support in the face of Owensby’s mental health challenges may have been that Owensby again sought personal fulfillment in a professional relationship. “Looking back, I am just so incredibly grateful for the times you gave me when I felt valued and wanted, as they were the happiest moments of my life,” she wrote to Wolan in a letter she last edited a few days before she died. “I slowly came to love you like the family I had always wanted.”

On Sunday, March 13, 2016, Owensby seemed to be doing well at Scripps. Wolan had texted Owensby, “You are working harder than you likely ever have in your life. And—more importantly—holding it together. You’ve come an incredibly long way. Very proud of you!” according to a document Owensby later prepared for attorneys.

Warning signs of suicide

The more of these signs people show, the greater the risk they will attempt suicide. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what cause a suicide.

▸ Talking about wanting to die.
▸ Looking for a way to kill oneself.
▸ Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose.
▸ Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
▸ Talking about being a burden to others.
▸ Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
▸ Acting anxious, agitated, or reckless.
▸ Sleeping too little or too much.
▸ Withdrawing or feeling isolated.
▸ Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
▸ Displaying extreme mood swings.

What to do

Take these actions if someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:

▸ Do not leave the person alone.
▸ Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs, or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.
▸ In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.
▸ Take the person to an emergency room, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.


Then Owensby’s life quickly derailed. According to Owensby’s notes, on Wednesday, March 16, Wolan called her into his office to ask if she’d gone through the drawers of a lab mate with whom Owensby had had a contentious relationship. (Six months earlier, Owensby had suspected the lab mate of sabotaging her research materials.)

On Thursday, March 17, Owensby was unexpectedly escorted from her lab to meet with James R. Williamson, then dean of graduate studies at Scripps and now executive vice president for research and academic affairs. According to Owensby’s notes about the meeting, Williamson told her that Wolan had requested her removal because she was disruptive and had gone through other lab members’ personal property. Williamson told Owensby not to return to the lab and had her identification badge and keys confiscated. Then she was escorted to her car.

On Friday, March 18, Scripps director of graduate studies, Dawn Eastmond, contacted Owensby to ask about laboratory materials needed to continue experiments. Eastmond also told her not to contact Wolan or any of her lab mates.

Owensby considered hiring an attorney to challenge Scripps’s actions but decided she couldn’t afford one. At a meeting on Thursday, March 31, 2016, with Williamson and Eastmond, Owensby learned more details of why she’d been shut out of Scripps. In addition to the accusation about going through lab mates’ property, Wolan had discovered that in 2014 Owensby and another lab member had accessed Wolan’s computer and gone through his web browser history.

In her notes for possible attorneys, Owensby maintained that the other, more senior, lab member was the instigator and she was a bystander. She “felt an enormous amount of social pressure to laugh along with” the other lab member when they were searching Wolan’s computer because of a fear of harassment from that person, Owensby wrote. Owensby also alleged that the other lab member had a history of inappropriate behavior, including using lab resources without Wolan’s knowledge to generate materials for a project the lab member planned to undertake elsewhere.

In texts to a friend after the meeting, Owensby wrote about the next steps Scripps planned to take: “They say they have conflicting testimony. They will basically feel it out and [Eastmond], [Williamson], and a [Scripps] lawyer will make a decision. [Eastmond] told me she envisions that either I resign or get terminated.”


Over the next couple of weeks, Owensby continued to text the same friend, expressing concern about how long Scripps would continue to pay her and whether she would have enough money for rent. She also said that she was applying for jobs, but “even McDonald’s wants to talk to your previous supervisor,” she wrote. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

Owensby also met with Brown, one of her therapists. He later told her family that he tried to help her problem solve throughout the entire course of events. Around Tuesday, April 5, Owensby called Eastmond from Brown’s office to ask about getting a recommendation from Wolan. Owensby texted a friend that Eastmond said Wolan didn’t want anything to do with her.

On Wednesday, April 13, 2016, Eastmond called Owensby to suggest that she resign from Scripps. Owensby’s texts to a friend say that Scripps would pay her until the end of April. After Owensby died, Forton, her aunt, spoke with Wolan and Eastmond. According to Forton’s notes about the meeting, Eastmond says she informed Owensby that Scripps would continue to pay for her health insurance through June.

On Wednesday and Thursday, April 13 and 14, Owensby tried several times to contact Wolan. She also spoke for the last time with Tochtrop, who says he thinks about the conversation nearly every day. “She was worried about her career and what she could do,” Tochtrop recalls. “I really tried to emphasize how incredibly smart and talented she was. I said that I would do anything I could to make sure she had a safe landing and found a position.”

Meanwhile, Owensby also spoke with and texted friends. “Can you watch Curie for a little bit tonight,” she texted one on Wednesday, referring to her beloved dog. “I need to have some time alone.”

The friend wasn’t able to take Curie that evening, and Owensby repeated the request on Thursday. Wolan and Eastmond each contacted Owensby’s therapist that day, concerned about Owensby’s behavior. No one contacted Owensby’s family.

Thursday evening, Owensby killed herself.

“We deeply mourn Anna’s sudden passing,” Williamson said in a Scripps obituary. “She was extremely bright and truly passionate about science. Our sympathies go out to her family, close friends and colleagues. We are all struggling to come to terms with what has happened, and we are doing our best to come together to generate a support network for those most affected.”

Cultivating mental health

Given Owensby’s mental health history, she was at high risk for attempting suicide after Scripps personnel barred her from her lab and encouraged her to resign. Ideally, Scripps personnel and Owensby’s therapists would have been aware of her risk for suicide.

Generally, however, “predicting suicide is hard,” says Sidra J. Goldman-Mellor, who studies suicide risk as a professor of public health at the University of California, Merced. “For any given person in a program, it’s going to be really difficult to know if they’re at high risk for suicide, because a lot of people hide it. What that means is that it’s important to make sure there is support for all students.”

That support should go beyond sending an annual e-mail with a list of resources, suicide risk and prevention experts say. Additional steps to take might include holding events such as stress-management workshops or sponsoring thesis-writing support groups. “You want to make it a culture in the department to acknowledge that graduate school is hard and there are things you can do to help cope with it,” Columbia’s Labouliere says. “Maybe then people won’t get to the point of feeling trapped.”

Some chemistry departments are making efforts to reduce stress where they can, foster more open discussions about mental health, and encourage students to talk with each other.

When Philippe Buhlmann, a chemistry professor at the University of Minnesota, became his department’s director of graduate studies, he made it his mission in that role to promote mental health. He started by working with UMN’s mental health services to develop a survey of chemistry graduate students to figure out their primary stressors. The most intense ones turned out to be the interrelated needs to publish and to find a job upon graduation. “We can’t eliminate those,” Buhlmann says. “We want 100% of our students to get a job.”

But Buhlmann and colleagues did identify some measures that the department could take to reduce students’ stress. For example, the department reconsidered annual student progress reports and self-evaluations. Without guidance, some students are harder on themselves than they should be. “They come up with their own scale that by all objective assessment is twisted,” Buhlmann says. Now, after the students self-evaluate, their advisers must also weigh in to concur or correct the student’s assessment, clarifying expectations and improving communication in the process.

The department also now requires that fourth-year students meet with their thesis committee members to talk about research progress and career aspirations. “Students were worried that this would be just another hoop” to jump through, Buhlmann says. “But I’m getting very positive feedback. It gives students other perspectives and pushes them to think more realistically” about how to reach their postgraduation goals.

Buhlmann also formed a student-run group called the Community of Chemistry Graduate Students (CCGS) that has a $3,000 budget to plan events promoting physical, mental, and social health. Activities so far have included hosting weekly runs and biweekly social hours, creating videos about depression, and holding panel discussions on topics such as stress reduction or how to write a résumé. “If we have too many things that are too strongly focused on mental health, then we don’t get good turnout,” says third-year chemistry graduate student and CCGS chair Evan Anderson. “If we mix things up, then we get better attendance overall.” A recent picnic had 150 attendees, which included more than half of the graduate students in the department.

Similar efforts are afoot in the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University. That department tried to implement changes after graduate student Jason Altom died by suicide in 1998—at the time, the department’s fourth suicide death in eight years. Some of those efforts, such as a biweekly catered dinner, didn’t stick.

A switch to multiprofessor doctoral committees did last—but different faculty approached committee responsibilities differently, such as how often they met with students. Starting with this fall’s incoming class, however, there will be some standardization: To alleviate the stress of having to choose committee members and corral them for meetings, those tasks will fall to the department’s director of graduate studies. Starting in their second year, students will have annual meetings with their committee in April, and the department has developed some basic guidelines about what those meetings should cover.

Additionally, the department has formed a Community Committee composed of faculty, staff, students, and postdocs who are charged with promoting department cohesiveness and communication. It has sponsored a Thanksgiving dinner for people remaining in the Cambridge, Mass., area during the holiday; sessions on mindfulness; chair massages; and “Fruitful Wednesdays” during nutritional awareness month, when students can gather and chat while picking up free fruit to eat. The committee does not yet have a budget because it is new, but “money is not a constraint; we will do things as they make sense,” says Elizabeth A. Lennox, director of laboratories and codirector of graduate studies in the department.

Meanwhile, the department’s Graduate Student & Postdoc Council has a $19,000 annual budget for social gatherings and what Lennox calls “fun but academically constructive events.” For example, the committee organized faculty to give talks about their experiences applying for academic jobs, running a lab, and rising from junior to senior faculty.

The increased efforts toward supporting mental health and building community were a priority set by professor Charles M. Lieber when he became department chair in 2015. A culture survey had shown that morale was down across the board in the department, something that Lieber attributes to a lack of transparency. Lieber emphasizes that expectations remain high for Harvard students, postdocs, and faculty. But promoting openness helps alleviate some of the issues created when people stay in their labs and offices and don’t talk with each other, he adds.


Crisis response

Although general programs to promote mental, physical, and social health are important, it is also critical for people to know how to respond when someone is in acute distress. Owensby was already connected with therapists when her life upended. But “most people who are depressed or suicidal don’t make it to a counseling center,” says Julie Cerel, a psychologist and professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work and president of the American Association of Suicidology. She says training people who are naturally part of students’ environment—“gatekeepers” such as lab managers, faculty, and other departmental staff—can help identify those in need of intervention. In departments in which people aren’t used to discussing mental health, training can also provide scripts they can use to begin conversations.

Credit: Courtesy of Anna Owensby’s family
Anna Owensby with her dog, Curie.
Credit: Courtesy of Anna Owensby’s family
Anna Owensby with her dog, Curie.

Such training, however, doesn’t mean that faculty or other department members become therapists. “There are professional limitations and personal boundaries that should not be crossed,” UMN’s Buhlmann emphasizes. He was a pilot trainee in a now-expanding effort at UMN to train mental health advocates within each academic unit. The advocates are taught a “4R” approach: recognize when people are in trouble, assume the role of listener, respond by giving them options, and direct them to appropriate resources.

Additionally, Buhlmann brought in UMN mental health services staff to train graduate student teaching assistants to recognize the signs of stress and mental health problems in chemistry undergraduates and how to direct them to appropriate help. These skills could also transfer to interactions with peers.

At Harvard, Lennox arranged for the school’s mental health services to conduct mental health awareness training this spring for the lab group administrators within her department. These administrators might be physically present in labs and see members in person more often than faculty do, Lennox says.

Lennox is also working with mental health services to develop a mental health curriculum to add to the department’s routine training for students and postdocs. She’d like to include topics such as signs of mental distress, suicide risk awareness, and campus resources.

As part of an overall campus approach, schools should also ensure that on-campus clinicians are trained in suicide prevention response and how to implement measures that can quickly ensure someone’s safety, Labouliere says. Those interventions include determining how to restrict access to whatever method someone has chosen to use to attempt suicide. One of the reasons someone is suicidal is an impaired ability to solve problems. Consequently, once someone has a suicide plan, he or she is unlikely to change it when faced with a barrier. Another intervention is safety planning, which involves talking through and writing down what actions to take when suicidal thoughts take over.

“Suicidal thinking does not last forever,” Labouliere notes. In the moment, people might find their pain unbearable, but if they can get through that crisis, then they likely can engage in therapy, consider their options, and work to address whatever factors led to the situation. She adds that it’s important to tell people in crisis that effective, research-supported treatments are available. “A lot of folks that feel suicidal are so hopeless and feel that their problems are so intractable that the message that there are treatments can be very powerful,” she says.

If someone does die by suicide, it’s important for the department and school to step up actions to pay attention to their community. Cerel’s research suggests that after someone dies by suicide, as many as 30 people might have their lives majorly disrupted. “It’s not just a handful of close family members whose lives are changed,” she says. Also, “I think that suicides can really hit science departments hard because they’re not used to talking about feelings,” she says.

Since Buhlmann has started bringing up the topic of mental health in his department, “there’s been tremendously positive feedback from other faculty,” he says. “Anyone who’s been a chemistry professor long enough knows students in their group or department who have severely struggled,” he adds. “There are so many good people out there who want to help but don’t know how. When you start to talk about it, everyone engages.” 

CORRECTION: This story was updated on Aug. 23, 2017, to correct the date of Jason Altom's death. He died in 1998, not 1988.



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Vera Kolb (August 7, 2017 5:40 PM)
My heart is broken for Anna Owensby and her family. I wonder if things could have been handled differently. Anna suspected that the lab mate was sabotaging her research materials. Was her suspicion properly investigated? It seems that she was not believed in her other statements, but were they investigated by a neutral third party? Why escort somebody from the lab and give them rough and humiliating treatment, which could push just anybody over the edge? Instead, she should have been treated with compassion, given the appropriate treatment, and time off to recover. The rule number one in dealing with people : do not kick somebody who is already down. What did Scripps Research Institute accomplish, other than getting negative publicity and possibly a gigantic law suit?
Weare (February 1, 2019 2:13 PM)
I worked in a different research group about this same time. I hope this did not happen to Anna Owensby but I ended up leaving Scripps because my fellow associates were harassing me and indeed my wife; very hateful things being done including criminal conduct. I wonder if Ann was pressured into doing something she should not, to fit into the group? Then those same people through her under the bus to cover-up what they actual did? I also wonder if this is not an issue of "gas lighting" by Scripps making it about "mental health" when it is about abusive conduct and toxic work environment. Scripps offered "mental health" treatment in response to me calling the police on my co-workers for illegal conduct. When I was at Scripps, it was not a good experience at all!
Keith Korthals (February 13, 2019 10:15 AM)
That is the beauty of using mental illness. That way the administration can claim the harassment was in her mind.
Sunny (August 8, 2017 1:09 PM)
Was she mentally stable enough to continue the program? Phd is stressful, did she have enough support system to guide her? Interestingly her family said she's always happy. No happy person with a supportive family would end themselves because of a glitch in life. She was escort out of the building because it's a violation to go through research professor's computer. Peer pressure doesn't justify her behavior since she's not 12 yrs old. Research isn't publish until its finalize for a reason. Apply wouldn't be happy if Samsung knows what their next move either. More so, there are tens and thousands of people committing suicide daily, no one is writing about them.
ggheit (February 1, 2019 8:42 PM)
Basically scipps screwed this person over...that is why there is an article. There have been physical assults in scipps one is kicked out. Seems strange as well this girl was removed from the program. What did she know that she was not suppose to see on that computer?
Gregory Cote (August 17, 2017 11:15 AM)
Your article on graduate student mental health really struck a chord with me. I was first diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression while I was a graduate student in biochemistry at Iowa State University nearly 40 years ago. Fortunately for me, I had a very supportive wife with some education in psychology. She urged me to go to the university health services, which probably saved my life. At that time, they offered full diagnostic and treatment services, and I was able to see an excellent counselor. Between counseling and antianxiety drugs, I was able to successfully complete my PhD studies. Upon speaking to other graduate students, I discovered that about half of the students in our research group had similar experiences. Thank you for bringing up a very serious and widespread problem. Every university official and professor should be more aware of this.
Bob Buntrock (August 23, 2017 1:25 PM)
Must have been a "toxic" research group (&/or mentor).
Steve (August 17, 2017 4:10 PM)
This is all good to hear that departments are actually realizing grad students and post docs are human beings. But I wonder how many will face repercussions by attending a "fun" event, or something that is not 100% related to their research project? I recall being "talked to" for taking MLK day off, for going sailing one day on a weekend, and for taking...vacation! All good things to do to stave off depression.

Now as a manager I find myself more often than not having to tell younger staff they need to take a break and stop working 10-12h days. It is not healthy and if you work smart you can accomplish as much in 8h as 10h. Unfortunately many faculty and supervisory staff wrongly equate presence with progress and quality.
Bob Buntrock (August 23, 2017 1:29 PM)
My grad school boss was ambivalent about time off and vacations but we did manage to take a lot of Saturdays and Sundays off plus a neat vacation to Florida. I came back rejuvenated.

The there's D. J. Cram at UCLA. We had a friend who was a Cram post-doc and said that DJC would show up about 3:00 in the afternoon and ask who wanted to go surfing with him.
Anonymous (August 21, 2017 6:34 PM)
I think Jason Altom's suicide is incorrectly cited as having occurred in 1988, I think it was in 1998 to put things into a correct timetable.
Rachel Pepling, Production Director (August 22, 2017 12:14 PM)
You are right, and we're working on a correction to appear soon.
Anonymous2 (September 14, 2017 10:56 AM)
This is such a tragic story. But re: first commenter, I'm not sure we should say Scripps should have handled things differently. That's if indeed they were reacting to her rifling through a colleague's possessions. As someone who's had their personal materials gone through by another labmate, some thrown away (nothing critical here), and more including sabotage, AND had suicidal ideation myself in grad school, we still have to react to wrongdoing whether done by a mentally ill person or not. Most of the time it is completely ignored - that's why I didn't report it, even the sabotage.

That is what should change - respect the mental health of the people targeted as well as the perpetrator. The perpetrator's mental health should also be taken very very seriously, and separately from their harmful behaviour. Most people who invade others' possessions are not at suicide risk. In my case, this person's action did not exactly help my own mental health, which was not good. Of course, our reaction to the perpetrator should never be degrading.
Samart Porncharoen (September 24, 2017 2:32 AM)
I have been studied PhD at Queensland University of Technology, Australia for 1.5 years. I did not pass Milestones. I am international student who won scholarships from my Country. I did not any help from my supervisors. Some time,I feel down and so depression.Some time, I want to suicide too.
Jyllian Kemsley (September 25, 2017 11:25 AM)
@Samart - We're very sorry to hear of your difficulties. Please reach out to the crisis help line in Australia:
Jyllian Kemsley (September 26, 2017 7:23 PM)
For anyone feeling overwhelmed and struggling to cope, please reach out to crisis services in your area.

In the U.S.:
* Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255
* Text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741
* Visit

In other countries:
* Search for the country name and "mental health crisis"
* Check
Jyllian (October 5, 2017 10:51 AM)
The International Association for Suicide Prevention also has a collection of international resources here:
Anonymous (October 14, 2017 8:28 PM)
As a PhD student myself who's also contemplating suicide, I can say with certainty that this is a systemic malaise than some individual cases of rotten apples. And things will continue to get worse until the entire academia undergoes a total revamp.
Jyllian Kemsley (October 20, 2017 6:08 PM)
@Anon--Please see the resources in the comments immediately above for help with your mental health.
KJ (October 31, 2017 8:29 PM)
It's true, it is a systematic issue. I'm in public health. My own department has been pretty good, but the university as a whole and other departments in the school of public health allow abusive and exploitative faculty almost free reign. In my case I have been bullied and harassed by a researcher who has tried to claim my work as her own, throw me under the bus on another grant, and steal an aim from me in order to take part in a grant that she had been fired from. Because PhD students can't be PIs even when we design and get funding for our projects (outside of specific pre doc awards) I was told I have no recourse.

The dangerous thing about all of this though is how it impacts community, and university-community dynamics. When community members raised concerns about the exploitative researcher, she said of community "'those people' are so ungrateful, but what do you expect, they've been marginalized for so long they can't improve their lot in life." Such a person has no place doing research with communities that she views so disparagingly!

I happen to be from one of these communities and her comments, as well as academics' lack of reaction to it, are appalling. A lack of reaction is condoning, and no reaction says the situation is acceptable and normal. This is gaslighting. I have also been told that people are tired of dealing with the situation after I contacted administrators to figure out whether or not to file a formal grievance for harassment, my stipend funding options, and options for preserving a $250K grant that I wrote and got (she was PI on it and had to be let go between grant submission and awarding, so my questions were all very relevant to preserving the grant and my stipend). This is not the reaction schools should have!

I have been kept sane by community, cohort-mates and professors who see systemic oppression, and the grants manager for my department who has seen the researcher's actions for what they are and has named them as abusive and problematic for community and for myself. One of the research deans however has said that he would ensure she had full credit for the grant (that I wrote and she derailed). The grant can't be funded because she antagonized our partners from another university who had to pull out, because they weren't treated as co-PIs, which gutted the grant. Were it funded though she would have been allowed to claim experience with communities she so antagonizes and wishes to exploit for additional grants. This is the crux of messed up university-community dynamics!

I don't think I'm suicidal but I wish that I could be because I have no faith in people or academia now.

Jyllian Kemsley (November 3, 2017 3:54 PM)
@KJ - I am sorry to hear of your experience.
Weare (February 1, 2019 2:51 PM)
Try showing up to a lab with people adding GHB to your coffee as a joke! That is the environment of Scripps. And yes I called the police who ignored and covered up the problem! But you know sarcasm sarcasm .... this is all just the mental health problem. Good luck with that letter of recommendation when you called the police on your advisors favorite!
Andy Barrette (March 21, 2018 3:53 PM)
Graduate students are expected to work long hours, are often paid minimum wage (or less counting student fees), are 5 times more likely to suffer from depression than the average person, and likewise have a higher suicide rate. If we were talking about factory workers then people would say they are being maltreated and would be pushing for legislation to protect those workers...yet grad students are expected to go get help. It's their problem; totally not systemic at all.
Anonymous (February 13, 2019 10:05 AM)
I worked at Scripps. My wife and my family got to hear on a weekly or daily basis how "Muslims should die." Another student as part of the same form of harassment got to hear about "how Christians should die". This female student asked to move labs due to the harassment; she was told no; she left. Scripps was not a nice place to work and you should look elsewhere.

The administration was not helpful but blamed us for filing complaints.

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