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Even Scientists Get the Blues


Spending long days and weekends slaving away at recalcitrant experiments, lying awake at night in the fear of being scooped by a rival group, or having to deal with a difficult colleague can give even the most cheerful amongst us scientists an acute case of the blues. But what happens when your weary sighs at the bench turn into sobbing in the toilets? Depression is a bit of a dirty word in the science world --we are expected to grit our teeth and get on with it, comforted by the knowledge that "science is just like that". My own encounter with depression has been an intensely painful yet enlightening experience, helping me to understand more about what makes me tick. I hope that my story helps anyone else out there who finds themselves in a similar situation.

How to spot depression

As final-year undergraduates, my friends and I were often given lists detailing "Signs of Stress" by well-meaning tutors. We would score points and vie with each other to see who was the most stressed, then laugh and dismiss it. Of course we were stressed! Finals were looming and they'd just put up the bar prices, but we took it all in our stride and it passed over. So as a postdoc whenever I encountered a list of signs of depression my first reaction was to tick as many boxes as possible, then ignore it. But after a harmless enquiry from a colleague about the state of my research left me crying hopelessly into my sandwiches, I began to suspect something might be wrong.

So if you suspect that your feelings may be more than just a temporary blip, do check out the common signs of depression (see box). A broad rule of thumb is if you experience more than five of them for more than 2 weeks, then you should seek help. However, do put them into context as some of these symptoms are quite common in academic life, particularly if your experiments are going down the pan. "Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism" will probably ring a bell with many scientists!

Common Signs of Depression

  • A persistent sad, anxious, numb, or empty mood

  • Moodiness or mood swings, over-the-top responses to normal situations

  • Restlessness, irritability, nervousness

  • Difficulty in concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions

  • Disturbed thinking--focusing on beliefs not based in reality. For example, "If this experiment doesn't work it means I am a bad person and will lose my job."

  • Feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and guilt--"I'm a terrible scientist, I don't work hard enough."

  • Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism--"I don't know why I'm even doing this experiment, it won't work."

  • Feelings of isolation--"No one understands me!"

  • Wanting to run away or hide from others

  • Insomnia or oversleeping

  • Fatigue or feeling sluggish

  • Changes in appetite and subsequently in weight

  • Loss of interest or pleasure in once-enjoyable hobbies and activities

  • Lack of motivation

  • Loss of libido or other relationship difficulties

  • Minor niggling physical problems that do not respond to treatment

  • Thoughts or attempts of self-injury or suicide--If you experience this, please seek professional help urgently.

List inspired from, Depression Community

How did it start?

In addition to major life traumas that can send anybody over the edge, incidents like getting scooped or having your big paper bounced may well spark an attack of the blues. Too few results and an impending thesis submission date may throw PhD students into despair. For me, the sort of person that needs plenty of short-term goals and achievements, it was the open-ended nature of my research project that did it. The failure of my experiments came to represent personal failings, leading to a loss of self-confidence and self-esteem. I spiralled downwards, believing that I was a bad scientist and the rest of my career was doomed to failure. It became difficult to go into work, and even harder to actually do any experiments once I was there.

What to do next?

Once I'd established that I was actually depressed and not just on a temporary "downer", I was at a loss as to what to do to get out of it. But there are different avenues to explore, and here are the ones I found, just in case you need them. ...

Get help! Initially I was trying to put on a brave face, hoping it would all go away by itself. But eventually I realised I couldn't do this on my own. Going to the doctor was an obvious option, but I feared being sent away with a pack of pills. Eventually I noticed a little poster in the tearoom advertising our in-house counselling service and plucked up the courage to give them a call. After a preliminary interview, I was offered a course of eight weekly counselling sessions. Talking through my worries with a professional stranger helped me to discover the root causes of my depression, and uncover ways in which I could deal with them. Alternatively the Internet is a great source of support--there are many online groups that provide information and a forum to talk to other people who are going through the same things.

Be nice to yourself. Prompted by the counselling sessions I've had to ask myself some pretty tough questions. Am I being too hard on myself? Are my career expectations realistic? In a world populated by high achievers, setting your sights on anything less than the Nobel Prize can feel like second-best. And we see high-powered scientists who are single-minded and determined to succeed, regardless of anything or anyone else around you. Did I really want to be one of them?

So I looked around for alternative role models and saw many excellent and well-rounded scientists. I have accepted the idea that people are not defined entirely by their achievements and am learning to celebrate the person that I am. What I had previously dismissed as waffly psychobabble is actually true: We all need to understand who we are and learn to love that person. Maybe you can bake fantastic cookies, make a great sliding tackle, or perhaps you are a good listener, a wonderful caregiver, or have a joke for every occasion. In the drive for academic success it is all too easy to leave personal development lagging behind. And I don't mean those tedious personal development assessment forms that human resources departments keep foisting on us.

Get out more. Having just moved to London--allegedly one of the hippest cities on Earth--my life revolved around work, the supermarket, and the local DIY store. Finding yourself spending Saturday night shopping for milk and toilet roll is enough to bring anyone down. Just making the effort to go out and explore galleries, restaurants, parks, and performances (even when I didn't feel like it) has helped to lighten my mood. I have also joined a local rugby team, with the two-fold benefit of meeting new people and relieving frustration by hurling myself in the mud on a regular basis.

Rethink your career. It's a bit of a drastic step, but I'm starting to wonder if I'm really cut out for life in a lab coat. Broadcasting and writing about science gives me joy and satisfaction that can't be matched by my labours at the bench, so the obvious next step is to pursue a career in this area. Yet academic research still keeps pulling me back. Perhaps I'm just in the wrong field and need to work out what really floats my scientific boat. Am I "selling out" or admitting I'm a failure if I leave? Or am I just scared of leaving the only work environment I have ever known? The answers to these questions may never become clear, but it's certainly worthwhile trying to figure them out.

What have I learnt?

I am gradually realising that things are never as black as they seem and that life is too short to wallow in misery. Slowly I am getting my self-confidence back and no longer define myself as a "failing scientist", but as someone who does science as well as a myriad of other things--including a vicious rugby tackle! We all experience highs and lows in life, although science can feel like a career with more than its fair share of the latter. Not everyone gets depressed about it, but those that do shouldn't have to keep it a dark secret. I have found that there are plenty of resources available to help--all you have to do is take the first step towards a solution

Kat Arney is feeling much better now, thank you ...

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