Elucidating the mental health crisis in academia

Credit: Johnny Guatto, University of Toronto

By: Norzin Shrestha

Mental health” and “mental illness” are often wrongly used interchangeably. Similar to how we take care of our physical health by exercising and eating healthy, it is equally important to take care of our mental health. Yet, why is it easier to discuss our physical health with a doctor (i.e., when we break a bone or develop a cold), but it is more difficult to talk to someone when our mental health is suffering? Poor mental health does not need to be permanent. Whether it is with medication, counselling or setting aside some “me time,” it is possible to be mentally well. Unfortunately, poor mental health is very prominent in academia.

it is equally important to take care of our mental health

There are numerous factors that contribute to poor mental health in academia, including imposter syndrome, financial concerns, poor supervisor relationships, and toxic lab dynamics. Most people completely give up their hobbies and stop having a social life so that they can give their full attention to their work. I was also guilty of this myself — I used to be in the lab fourteen hours a day, seven days a week and the lab was practically my home. Later, I realized that I was actually crippling my growth as a scientist. This is a very common work model in academia and probably one of the main contributors to the mental health crisis we are currently facing. There is this idea that long work hours lead to more data and more publications, and this is engrained in the mindset of many academics. Don’t get me wrong, you do need to work hard in order to get results, but perhaps we need to emphasize the need to work smart and efficiently rather than working long hours.

The culture of working long hours also induces feelings of isolation and guilt. Many academics feel isolated from their non-academic friends and family, as we are busy working in our labs. Moreover, it’s extremely difficult to explain our lifestyle to those outside of academia. We also tend to feel guilty as we cannot spend as much time with them as we used to, which often leads to strained relationships. Having a good support system is crucial while going through such a demanding experience in graduate school. Excluding our friends and family, this support system usually consists of our supervisor and colleagues in the lab. Now, imagine if our relationship with our supervisor and colleagues isn’t a healthy one … wouldn’t that pose as an immense source of stress? As a student, our academic and professional future relies heavily on guidance from our supervisor. If our relationship with our mentor isn’t conducive to understanding and growth, this can disrupt our mental health significantly and become a major source of anxiety.

Another common source of suffering for academics is imposter syndrome. I think almost everyone has felt inadequate and doubted their own accomplishments at some point in their graduate careers. Not only do we have to work hard (and smart), we are also “tested” at every stage of our careers, whether it is with committee meetings, presenting posters/talks at conferences, and defending our work at the end of graduate school. So, in this competitive and sometimes hostile environment (depending on the lab you’re working in), a failed experiment or a failed project can send us to a very dark place mentally. In reality, failure is a part of life and sometimes, things don’t work out as we had planned or envisioned. In times like these, we really ought to remind ourselves that some failed experiments have resulted in scientific breakthroughs!

Graduate school is a very challenging experience, however, there are other professions that are equally, if not more, challenging. What are we doing that is debilitating the mental health of our communities? I think it’s crucial to point out that even though the majority of work published on mental health focuses on graduate students, there are other members of our community who are also suffering (i.e., post-doctorate fellows, faculty members and lab staff). If they were experiencing mental health issues in school and didn’t seek help, then their poor mental health has not been addressed their whole career!

even though the majority of work published on mental health focuses on graduate students, there are other members of our community who are also suffering

Everything that I have touched upon so far is a part of the global mental health problem. It’s not just restricted to our department or to the University of Toronto. Nevertheless, if we want to see change, we have to start small and that would be here within the Cell and Systems Biology (CSB) Department. Financial concerns, inside and outside of academia, are major contributors of stress, anxiety, and depression. Compared to other departments, serving as a teaching assistant (TA) is a part of our stipend. So, in addition to conducting experiments, we have to be a TA, while also taking some grad courses. For those of us who want to stay in academia and become professors, this is the ideal situation as we have a guaranteed position. For others who plan on working in industry, venturing outside of academia and industry or who have terrible time-management and multi-tasking skills, it is extremely stressful and more of a nuisance. Then, there are those of us who have families to support and the current stipend is really not enough!

When I started my PhD, I wasn’t aware of the mental health crisis in academia. As I progressed through graduate school, I began to notice many friends slip from being mentally healthy to developing anxiety, depression, and some who even contemplated suicide. Being on the caregiver side of the struggle, it was heartbreaking to watch such brilliant and strong individuals suffer. In my pursuit to help them, I realized that the department didn’t have any resources in place to help those who were suffering. There was no conversation around mental health and absolutely no awareness of the current crisis. It was then that I decided it was time to take action and founded the St. George CSB Wellness Committee. The committee consists of graduate students, a post-doctoral fellow, a staff member, and faculty members. I believe that the best way to tackle this crisis is by working together. This committee will hopefully be useful for those who don’t feel comfortable disclosing their feelings to their social circle or for those without one (such as international members, labs with only one student, and domestic but out of province members of our community). The goal of the committee is to increase awareness surrounding the mental health crisis, while advocating for the wellbeing of everyone at CSB. So, if you are reading this and you are suffering, please reach out to someone. It doesn’t matter who. Just someone. Sometimes, just the act of talking helps.

This article was originally published in the CSB Forefront and subsequently in Elemental Magazine.

The take home message: it is important to look after your mental wellbeing periodically; it is an investment in your future physical and mental wellbeing. Analogous to doing regular maintenance on equipment to avoid costly repair costs. If you are noticing signs of fatigue or distress, don’t ignore it – do something about it! Many resources are available to help you get through distress.

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