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Talking about mental health—and addressing the challenges that many academics face

One of the most well-attended sessions at this year’s EuroScience Open Forum, held earlier this month in Toulouse, France, addressed a difficult issue: mental health in academia. Just a few years ago, the sensitivity of the topic and widespread stigma around discussing it may have drawn a smaller crowd. But a growing number of studies highlighting the psychological distress among academics, in addition to testimonies on social media and other efforts, are bringing what some have described as a mental health crisis out into the open.

Science Careers spoke with session speaker Mark Robinson, a psychologist in the Student Counselling Service at Trinity College in Dublin, about what academics can do in the face of this crisis. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What do students most commonly come to you for?

A: Students present with all kinds of issues, most commonly low mood and anxiety. But a significant factor in a lot of people’s difficulties is overwhelming and punishing self-criticism. I invite students who are struggling with this issue to think about how they can move past the content of their self-criticism to focus more on how it makes them feel when they treat themselves in that way, with a view toward exploring more self-compassionate ways of motivating themselves.

In university settings, another factor that is often a big deal is perfectionistic striving. Academia is a very challenging place to try to give yourself permission to submit a thesis chapter that you feel is not good enough, for example. I encourage students to ask themselves, “Is my perfectionistic striving in fact my relentless pursuit of punishingly high standards? Is my perfectionistic striving actually getting in the way of my doing well or achieving excellence?” Usually, there is an underlying belief that pursuing perfection is in some way motivating or helps achieve excellence, but thoughts like “my work isn’t good enough unless it’s perfect” or “I’m not good enough unless it’s perfect” are actually counterproductive. Any excellence that students are achieving—and there usually is a lot of it—is often achieved in spite of such perfectionistic thinking.

So, practice making mistakes, practice experiencing failure—not in your biggest projects but in your small ones. If you are not giving your supervisor a thesis chapter because you are waiting until the chapter is perfect, for example, then I would say that it’s better to submit a good enough chapter and get support improving it than to sit at your desk struggling to write and becoming more and more distressed.

If left unchecked, the distress may become so overwhelming—or the standards may be so high to start with—that there are people who will find themselves struggling to write anything at all. Harsh perfectionism can lead to procrastination and avoidance—either behavioral avoidance, where people go and do other things, or a more emotional kind of avoidance where you are almost scaring yourself through worry. Again, people can have an underlying belief that worrying is somehow motivating, but you must separate worry from problem-solving. Worry is like being in a rocking chair where there is lots of energy going in but no real movement. It’s a habit and it’s hard to break. I encourage habitual worriers to become aware of these dynamics and seek support.

Q: What help is available for students who are struggling?

A: Asking for help can be difficult for people who are high achievers. They tend to feel, “I must fix this myself.” I encounter lots of people who come to me looking for tools that will allow them to resolve their issues within themselves.

But one of the messages I’d like to promote is that we are social creatures. We live in relationships, whether we like it or not, and the way that you build resilience and cope better when stressors add up—because stressors are cumulative—is through supportive relationships. I always encourage students who are struggling to talk to the people who are important to them and whom they can trust.

I know that it’s easy for me to say. Often, people are very resistant to reaching out to family and friends. It can be very threatening when we’re feeling very vulnerable and like we will be judged or maybe even rejected. Some people within your closest academic circle can also help, but there is still stigma and reluctance to talk about how we’re feeling and risk being perceived as weak. A sense of worthlessness and shame will also often make struggling students want to hide their suffering rather than seek help.

But there is always somewhere safe to go if you’re really struggling and feeling like there is nobody out there. Today, at least in Ireland, I see more willingness from students to seek support from university counseling services, for example. Your physician is always a good port of call. And if you are feeling very overwhelmed and like there is a threat to your life, you can go to a hospital emergency department. There are also organizations like the Samaritans in the United Kingdom and Ireland and other emotional support helplines that you can call.

Sometimes, rather than seeking help, one must make space to nurture and protect oneself. Work-life balance in particular plays an important role in mental health, and I would encourage people to find ways to take a chance at saying “no” to requests that you see as excessive. For example, during the session, somebody was talking about how they didn’t want to receive emails from their supervisor at 3 o’clock on a Saturday morning. You can try to set those boundaries—for example, by not responding or reading that email until Monday—while acknowledging that in certain ways your supervisor is the boss, so they can be very hard to say “no” to.

Q: What can supervisors do to support their students?

A: Part of my role in the Student Counselling Service is to train tutors and supervisors in how to respond if they become aware that a student is distressed, either because the student brings it to them or because they are watching out for signs and signals that somebody is becoming overwhelmed. But we also need to think about the boundaries in what supervisors can do and what information they need about what other resources are available on campus and beyond so that they can refer students to them.

Just as important is to consider how supervisors can support themselves. It can be very distressing to feel like you’re not equipped to respond to somebody who comes to you for help and says, “I’m overwhelmed.” And it can be very distressing to feel like, “Gosh, I did this response and now I want to go for a picnic with my family for the weekend, but I find myself thinking about how I responded and whether it was adequate, or whether it was insufficient, or whether it was maybe even harmful.” I think that the key is to help people at all career stages develop their ability to talk about these difficult issues. 

This is the first in a series of Q&As from this year’s EuroScience Open Forum.

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