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Diversity

Faculty open up about mental health under the COVID-19 pandemic

Academia’s mental health crisis, often focused on students’ experiences, affects professors too

by Tien Nguyen, special to C&EN
May 17, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 19

 

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Credit: Courtesy of Michelle O’Malley
Michelle O’Malley (left) and Matthew Helgeson welcomed twins during the pandemic.

Michelle O’Malley and Matthew Helgeson, chemical engineering faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara, are still adjusting to life under the coronavirus pandemic.

For the married professors, this means running their respective research groups from home while also taking care of their almost-3-year-old son. Elliott, like most preschoolers, needs constant attention. Except during nap time. That 2 h stretch about every other day is the only time that they can count on getting work done. “That’s essentially where we are, as sad as that is,” O’Malley says with a rueful laugh. “We pack Zoom meetings into nap time and hope for the best.”

In between virtual group meetings and checking in with students, they try to analyze data or edit manuscripts, which are now their only options to move research forward. With lab experiments on hold indefinitely and grant managers asking how they’re using the time, O’Malley is anxious about the possibility of losing grants that support trainees. “That keeps me up at night a lot.”

But most of their stress comes from trying to juggle all their regular responsibilities as faculty without the regular support of childcare, she says. Helgeson’s parents have flown in to help temporarily, but only out of impending necessity. When she spoke with C&EN, O’Malley was due to deliver twins about a week after the interview.

O’Malley and Helgeson’s situation may be unique, but this unprecedented crisis comes with new challenges for everyone. And for faculty already contending with outsize workloads and expectations, these uncertain times can further strain their mental health—though they may be hesitant to admit it.

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Credit: Wafa Alaabdy
Hilal Lashuel takes daily walks in a nearby park with his wife.

“There is a real element of fear that you’ll be judged, that this could compromise your job security, that this could compromise your effectiveness as an instructor,” says Lee Penn, a chemistry professor at the University of Minnesota. Penn is one of four mental health advocates in the department trained to serve as resources for distressed students, staff, and faculty. Since Penn joined the advocate program in 2017, only two faculty members have reached out, compared with the two or three students who seek help every month.

Graduate student mental health has gotten attention in recent years, and several studies have investigated the prevalence of student mental health issues. For example, a 2018 study found that about 40% of graduate students experienced moderate to severe depression and anxiety (Nat. Biotechnol. 2018, DOI: 10.1038/nbt.4089).

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Faculty haven’t received the same attention.

But it’s not hard to imagine that faculty may experience similar issues as their students, says Wendy Marie Ingram, executive director of Dragonfly Mental Health, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve mental health in academia. After all, she says, professors were once graduate students, likely experiencing many of the same mental health hardships, and sometimes not that long ago.

Ingram, a postdoc in psychiatric epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, says many in her cohort are now making the transition to assistant professor. A lot of them are “freaking out” about starting their independent careers during a pandemic, she says. One friend, for example, just hired his first technician only to have his lab shut down. Yet because they’re faculty now, they feel as if they can’t show that they’re struggling, which is unfortunate, Ingram says.

“Faculty deserve, as much as anyone, the space to talk about what’s going on for them,” she says. And when professors do speak up, it can have a powerful effect.

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Credit: Leslie Mio
Matthew Mio’s home office desk is also the table where the family folds laundry in the basement.

You’re not alone

Chemical biologist Hilal A. Lashuel had been a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne (EPFL), for almost 10 years when he went on sabbatical. He left to serve as executive director of the Qatar Biomedical Research Institute, a national lab with more than 70 employees. For an intense 2 years, he worked and traveled constantly, running the organization while maintaining an active research group of 14–16 scientists. Then he returned to his lab full-time, diving back into writing more grants. A few months after his return, he collapsed of a heart attack.

Lashuel recovered, but he was shaken by the event. He began thinking about the sacrifices he had made for work—namely, time with his family and his health. He started questioning the constant stress and brutal working hours that seemed standard among academics.

“[My heart attack] forced me to think about these things: Is this normal really normal?” he says. He came away with an important realization: “It didn’t have to be this way.”

It was this insight that convinced Lashuel to share his story with others. He published essays in eLife and Nature revealing his struggles and examining the crushing expectations for academics. He was nervous about the response, concerned that others would perceive him as weak or not cut out for academia.

[My heart attack] forced me to think about these things: Is this normal really normal?
Hilal A. Lashuel, chemical biology professor, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne (EPFL)

But the feedback he received was extremely positive, he says. More than 100 emails and messages on social media streamed in from people all over the world. At least half came from faculty who were grateful to learn about his experiences and admitted to their own mental health struggles, he says, some saying they were “on the verge of losing it” or were considering self-harm. He recounts one heartbreaking response, in which a woman wrote that she wished her husband had been able to read Lashuel’s article because it could have helped him open up and possibly prevent his death.

“Speaking up does make a difference,” Lashuel says. A discussion of faculty mental health is now on the agenda at EPFL’s annual campus-wide faculty meeting. As he continues to run his own group, he hopes that revealing his experiences will empower his lab members to feel comfortable sharing their personal struggles. Lashuel is also working with them to review activities, like the group meeting schedule and lab notebook expectations, to identify sources of stress that could potentially be addressed. “It takes a lot of effort and time to build trust with your people so that they can open up,” he says.

Since his heart attack, Lashuel has been working on reducing his lab size by a third, traveling less, and limiting the number of reviews he agrees to every month. Now when he weighs a request, he thinks about how it will affect his family, his health, and his group and how much it matters for the science. Not only have these changes improved his life, he says, but they have also benefited his science and the students he mentors. “I have time to write first-author papers again. I have time to reflect on the whole field, and I enjoy it more,” he says.

He admits that finding this kind of balance is much harder for early-career faculty who are under pressure to secure their positions. Senior faculty can help by communicating the expectations for tenure, which are often unclear, and by creating a supportive atmosphere. “People can still succeed and do well,” he says, “but it’s not easy to do in a culture where people aren’t able to discuss [their issues] and have wide support.”

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Credit: Jiri Andrys
Melita Menelaou plays with her daughter.

Coping mechanisms

Cultivating support for colleagues is crucial, especially during the current situation, but it can also be taxing, says Matthew Mio, chair of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Detroit Mercy. The dean has asked him to check in personally with the 16 faculty members in his department and physics weekly. After a full day of meetings, he often feels emotionally exhausted.

Mio says he was struck by a recent tweet by Emory University’s Jen Heemstra, who has written about the mental health crisis in academia. She wrote that she’d come to appreciate two things more during the COVID-19 crisis. “Even if you don’t feel like the crisis is impacting you emotionally, it probably is,” and “that impact may show up in unexpected ways at unexpected times,” Heemstra tweeted on April 2.

Mio says people have to find an appropriate emotional outlet, perhaps by engaging in a favorite activity or crying it out. Once you’ve given yourself time to feel, then you can move on to something else, he says. He meets with a therapist and uses the Calm app, which promotes meditation and is free for educators. He started using it about a year ago and now says it’s his “bread and butter.” Ingram recommends an online service called BetterHelp, which offers virtual sessions with a licensed therapist at affordable prices, starting at $50 per week.

Menelaou, a senior researcher at the Central European Institute of Technology, who has been on maternity leave for about a year, is considering extending her leave for another year because she’s unsure about the safety of sending her daughter to daycare. For Menelaou, staying busy has been crucial for her mental health. She talks with friends and does yoga daily, takes online courses for project management, and goes for quick walks around the block. “Right now, keeping our mental health in as good state as possible is so important, like drinking water or breathing clean air,” she says.

Ingram, who has familial bipolar disorder, says some people with preexisting mental health issues may be particularly affected by the pandemic. She encourages them to shore up their mental health resources, whether through talk therapy or medication. Ingram’s Dragonfly Mental Health has been holding “COVID cafés.” These virtual hangouts have gathered dozens of graduate students, postdocs, and a handful of faculty from different institutions to chat about how they’re managing during the pandemic.

The University of Minnesota’s Penn adds that people who hold marginalized identities are at greater risk of mental health issues, often because they’re having to expend precious energy explaining their identities to others. “I have to spend time talking to people about my pronouns every single day,” says Penn, who goes by they and them.

As a mental health advocate, Penn finds that when faculty share their experiences, students appreciate it. “Being a whole, real human being” is key, Penn says. “Sharing what parts of your life make things a little bit challenging is important, no matter what those might be, whether it’s mental health, physical health, disability, or identity.”

Twitter has also helped academics feel connected, and it can provide some much-needed humor, UCSB’s O’Malley says. However, it can be tough watching other scientists tweet about their increased productivity during quarantine. “It’s hard, but it’s important not to beat yourself up,” she says.

Since C&EN spoke with O’Malley and Helgeson, they’ve welcomed twins Mia Evangeline and Lucas John. As nerve racking as it was to expand their family during the COVID-19 crisis, they say it’s been helpful to focus on the bigger picture.

“Professionally, it’s caused me to refocus on the parts of this career and this profession that I really value,” Helgeson says. He wants to prioritize passing on knowledge to students and especially try to fill in training gaps caused by the pandemic. For O’Malley, the crisis has reminded her how proud she is to be a scientist. “I think we have an increased call to duty as basic scientists and engineers to try and put our heart and soul into what we do, because it’s clear that the way to overcome pandemics and grand challenges like this is through science.”

Tien Nguyen is a freelance science writer based in Washington, DC.

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