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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 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 23


A vector drawing of a sad woman in a lab coat.
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

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



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