Mental wellbeing in academia

There is a mental wellbeing crisis in academia, one that has been documented in multiple studies of graduate students. Problems (and their solutions) exist, and both at the individual and community level, though triggers can be difficult to identify and resources can be difficult to find and access. Though I am not a trained mental health professional in any way, I have led some seminars and discussions on mental health and wellbeing in academia (particularly for early-career researchers like graduate students and postdocs), and I have compiled lists of internet resources shared below. Slides from seminars/discussions with the physics & astronomy department at MSU, the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics 2019 at MSU, and Women in Physics Canada 2019 conference are at the links.

You’ll notice that I prefer the phrase “mental wellbeing”, not “mental health” — there are other concerns for graduate students beyond formal mental health problems and mental illnesses, like loneliness and homesickness, which I want to be sure to include. Disclaimer: I am an astronomy postdoc, not a mental health professional. This is peer-to-peer advice and my personal (non-expert) opinion.

Content warning: depression, anxiety, other mental illness, suicide

Quicklinks: studies, crisis, local resources, internet resources, mentoring, advice articles, self-care

Studies

I’ve compiled a list of studies and summarized their individual major findings here. The big take-aways:

  • Graduate students are at least twice as likely to experience negative mental wellbeing, especially depression and anxiety, compared to a similarly educated non-graduate-school population
  • Gender & sexuality minorities had significantly higher rates of problems than cis-men
  • Work and organizational context (including satisfaction with mentorship/advising) are significant predictors of grad students’ mental health

Crisis hotlines and remote support

You don’t need to be thinking of suicide to be in crisis and need someone to talk to.

University and in-person resources

  • Student counseling center at campus health clinic: at-risk/crisis, getting started with therapy/counseling
  • Depending on size/funding of the counseling center, you might be referred to an off-campus long-term therapist after only a few meetings. This is ok! They want you to access the help you need, within your means, and within the reach/scope of the counseling center.
  • Check website for links to 24/7 emergency services like hotlines, local domestic violence shelter, food cupboard, etc.
  • Ask your doctor for a referral to a therapist (who will accept your university health insurance, if applicable)
  • Search the internet for sliding-scale/sliding-fee/pay-what-you-can counseling in your area
  • Talk with peers, trusted colleague, and/or mentor (in your department or elsewhere)
  • If looking to re-vamp university-level services: “Customizing Mental Health Information and Services for Graduate Students”

Mentoring

Mentoring and supervision are related to mental wellbeing in academia, because someone’s satisfaction with their workplace environment (including supervision) is a significant indicator of their mental wellbeing. Mentoring agreements are a useful starting point when forming a new mentoring relationship, since they provide the structure for individualized management (e.g., feedback styles, the level and type of supervision). These are intended to be the beginning of a continuous conversation, not a full and complete one-off conversation. You can use it as a template for a verbal mutual agreement, or write your own and actually sign it (the former is much more common). Change whatever language or context don’t fit your research field. In order of most to least thorough: Example 1 from the American Association of Medical Colleges; example 2 from U. Alabama Birmingham; example 3 from U. Nebraska Lincoln.

The concept of boundaries is brought up in some of the mentorship agreement templates. These boundaries can include not discussing details of mental health and details of other personal problems, since professors/PIs may be uncomfortable dealing with something that is both very important and outside the scope of their own training. Both mentor and mentee should discuss what they’re comfortable with in the context of their professional relationship. Finally, all of this mentorship advice is assuming good faith of both parties. If this is not the case, please seek advice and/or intervention from a more-senior-to-you group member, a trusted colleague, and/or health counseling services.

Internet resources

General

Articles with advice and perspectives

General

Depression

Anxiety

Et cetera

Self-care

Remember that the most valuable self-care is building a life from which you don’t feel a regular need to escape.

If you have a favourite resource that you find really helpful but I didn’t list, you can contact me! Again, I’m an astronomy postdoc, not a mental health professional. This is peer-to-peer advice and my personal (non-expert) opinion.