ADVERTISEMENT
2 /3 FREE ARTICLES LEFT THIS MONTH Remaining
Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.

If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.

ENJOY UNLIMITED ACCES TO C&EN

Graduate School

For grad students and postdocs, mental health begins with faculty

Want to solve the mental health crisis among grad students and postdocs? Start with faculty

by Jen Heemstra
June 4, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 23

 

09723-feature4-depression.jpg
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
It's healthy to seek help.

I would like to raise mental health awareness among faculty members within my department. I think there is generally a lack of awareness and advocacy for student mental health, particularly for graduate students. I would like to ask if you have specific advice on what I can do as a faculty member and what obstacles I should anticipate.—Anonymous assistant professor

A mental health crisis exists among students and postdocs. As faculty, we are often the first responders in this crisis, and there is much we can do to provide support and help individuals seek out treatment when needed. But before we get to that, we need to talk about something else, and this column will be the first in a two-part series aimed at addressing this crisis.

If someone is drowning, who should they look to for help? Someone else who is drowning? Of course not. They should look to the person who has made it out of the water and knows where to find the life preserver. Same goes for the mental health crisis. As faculty, we can’t be of much help to students struggling with their mental health if we’re not taking care of our own. After all, how can we serve as effective mentors and teachers if we don’t have the emotional bandwidth to meet our own needs? How can we expect students and postdocs to practice good self-care and seek out help when they need it if we don’t or if we’re afraid to admit that we do?

It’s good that we talk about student and postdoc mental health, but we also need to talk about faculty mental health. Let’s face it, being a professor self-selects for people who have very high expectations for themselves and obsess over their craft, and it places them in an environment where failure is the norm and isolation is the default. We are perfectly primed to struggle with stress, anxiety, burnout, and depression. What can we do about this? Talking about it helps, and we also need to change the culture to value self-care and destigmatize seeking professional help.

Let’s tackle self-care first. We spend a lot of time discussing how much we work and how little we sleep. Could it be that we do this because we think that everyone else around us is working harder than us, and that thought breeds insecurity? If that’s the case, then this response creates a self-reinforcing cycle that quickly spirals out of control. What if we intentionally shifted our conversations to talk more about what we do when we’re not working—the concert we went to last night, the yoga class we’re going to this afternoon, the family vacation planned for next month? Sometimes my schedule makes it such that the only time I can get out for a run is during the workday. I used to surreptitiously change into my running clothes and then bolt for the door, hoping to make it outside without anyone seeing me and thinking I was slacking on work. That’s ridiculous. I should feel comfortable managing my time how I see best and feel proud—not ashamed—of modeling good self-care for my lab members.

And then there’s the topic of seeing a counselor, therapist, or other mental health professional. While students and postdocs are becoming increasingly open about this, a much larger stigma remains for faculty. We hold a view that seeking help means we’re weak, and if we’re weak, then we don’t belong in leadership positions. I’d argue that we need to embrace the opposite mind-set. It’s hard to believe that any faculty member is immune from stress and burnout, and many will also face depression or anxiety. Everyone struggles, and the people who have the self-awareness to recognize they need help and the courage to seek it out are exactly the type of people we want in positions of leadership. I personally have found value in the ability of a counselor to recenter my perspective and help me manage stress productively, which makes me more effective at work and a more enjoyable person to be around.

So how do we change the culture to encourage more discussion about mental health and self-care? It can feel daunting to think about changing an entire culture, but our culture is just made up of all the things that we think, say, and do. We can join together and recognize that we have a problem, start talking openly about it, and decide that taking care of ourselves is something that we value. It’s only when we get this right for ourselves that we’ll be prepared to help our students and postdocs. Stay tuned for more on that topic next month.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at cenm.ag/officehours.


Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

Advertisement
X

Article:

This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Comments
Jotie Saini (June 4, 2019 6:51 PM)
I agree with some aspects what that author has written about in terms that professors themselves may have been or currently be in the same boat as the graduate students/postdocs with mental health issues. Unfortunately, seeking help for mental health issues is still stigmatized, and often to an escalated degree in intellectual settings where the fear of people knowing hinders the will to seek help. More awareness needs to be raised about these issues and faculty, students and researchers need to be made comfortable with the idea of taking that step to address their metal health. However, I feel that the author left out the major cause cure for depression and anxiety in graduate students and postdocs. Most of them are under a tremendous amount of pressure from their advisors or faculty, which many times borders abuse and harassment. While there are amazing mentors and advisors in faculty around the world, it is not uncommon to have some that run their labs with fear and intimidation, and treat their students and postdocs as cheap labor. The author mentions activities outside of work hours but there are numerous grad students and postdocs who have to spend late nights in labs and are expected to answer their phones and emails, often with more assignments to follow up, at all hours of day and night. Most of the times, such abuse is unreported due to the fear of retaliation since normal HR rules don't always apply when it comes to academic labs. I believe, in order to address mental health issues in students and postdocs, we need to gather knowledge about what the grad students and postdocs are experiencing because while many points the author touches upon may be contributing factors to depression and anxiety among students and postdocs, the major underlying cause is the way they are treated.
Laurie Gower (June 5, 2019 12:41 PM)
I'm not trying to make excuses for abusive faculty, but I imagine that a solution to the grad/postdoc stress also relates to this article, because if there was less pressure on faculty, then they most likely wouldn't be so demanding on their students. In addition, because we faculty know how challenging the job market is, we push the students to get all those pubs they are going to need to get the type of job they want to pursue. If that is an academic path, they need a paper in a high impact journal. Sadly, these days that cannot be obtained from just a doctoral students work; it seems to require a collaborative team of about 20 co-authors. In any case, while I think open discussion about these things is desirable, I know from experience there is likely to be some backlash, so I wouldn't recommend it.
Fenton Heirtzler (June 5, 2019 11:26 AM)
Dr. Heemstra,

My first reaction to the topic of your article is to punch a wall and afterwards jump off of a bridge..There are far, FAR more PhD-level chemists who are unemployed than there are stressed out tenure track university faculty. What about their mental health?* What about the sea of gig-professor-lecturers who are hoping to somehow ascend above being adjuncts and “visiting” professors?** I will claim that most of them see little purpose in ACS membership.


*”CJ” banned me from his blog after I accidentally learned his real name.

*Until Organic Chemistry was de-structured from my employer’s remit, I was assistant professor. I invite you to confirm this with my former colleagues. Subsequent job applications for both academic and industrial jobs were 95% ignored.

Dr. F. Heirtzler

Leave A Comment

*Required to comment