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Trainees and mental health: Let’s talk!

A few studies have already started raising the alarm: Graduate students and postdocs face many pressures, and these can all take a toll on their mental health. A 2014 study by the Graduate Assembly at the University of California, Berkeley, for example, found that more than a third of the master’s students and almost half of the Ph.D. candidates across the university’s campus were depressed, with career prospects, living conditions, financial stability, academic preparation and progress, and adviser relationship all among the top predictors for well-being. Just a year before, a study conducted at a large research institution in Texas suggested that 13% of the institution’s postdoctoral trainees were flourishing, 58% were languishing, and another 29% were depressed. However, comprehensive data about the mental health of graduate students and postdocs—and how it may relate to professional and career development aspects—are crucially lacking.

This is an issue that an interdisciplinary group of three academics care deeply about, and are working to address. Teresa Evans, who is the director of the Office of Career Development within the Graduate School of Biomedical Science at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA) and a lecturer in professional development in the Department of Pharmacology; Nathan Vanderford, an assistant professor in the Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington who is also assistant dean for academic development in the university’s College of Medicine; and Lindsay Bira, a practicing clinical health psychologist at UTHSCSA who also runs her own private consultancy, recently launched a research study aiming to measure the prevalence of mental health issues among trainees in academia. Master’s degree students, Ph.D. candidates, and postdocs in any field and country are invited to take part by anonymously completing an online questionnaire, which may take between 10 and 30 minutes. Launched on 9 March, the survey has already gathered more than 1000 responses. The team plans to continue collecting data for up to 3 months before analyzing and publishing the findings. 

In a Skype conversation with Science Careers, Evans, Vanderford, and Bira discussed their motivations behind the survey and their hopes for implementing change. The conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.

Science Careers: What prompted you to launch the survey?

Teresa Evans

Teresa Evans

Credit: Teresa Evans

Evans: My interest in helping trainees began when I was still a graduate student in the field of neuroscience. I started organizing career development programs, which soon led to my current academic leadership and advising position. In this new role, I was astounded by the number of trainees coming through my door that were experiencing some form of anxiety, depression, stress, or burnout. I also wanted to continue doing research and, being fresh out of grad school and in need of guidance, I went to Nathan, whom I had met on Twitter, with the idea for the survey. Nathan was immediately supportive. With the both of us also needing expertise in the area of neuropsychology, we then turned to Lindsay, who was someone I knew would be eager to help.

Vanderford: I was interested in doing this study because, looking back on my years as a graduate student in molecular and cellular biochemistry and then as a postdoc, I can certainly remember instances in which I had issues with anxiety and stress, at the very least. And I was in a situation where I felt like I needed permission from my [principal investigators (PIs)] to go and seek career development or even clinical counseling. Many of my feelings stemmed from my belief that my PIs wanted me to become a faculty member, and at the time I didn’t want to be that. They didn’t give me a platform to express any other kinds of ideas for a career, and so I just felt very repressed. I think that’s a major career development and potential mental health issue, when students and postdocs don’t feel like they have the ability to explore their options.

Bira: I similarly had a somewhat difficult experience in graduate school. In clinical psychology land, what’s communicated as valuable during the Ph.D. in terms of long-term career goals is academia. I was always much more clinically oriented and had a lot of difficulty figuring out whether that was something that was okay. Also, the stress load of graduate school was outstanding, and I struggled with establishing a proper work-life balance. So, when Teresa and Nathan reached out to me, I felt passionate about contributing from the mental health perspective to get a good picture of what might be going on for students at the graduate training level.

SC: What range of mental health issues do you encounter among trainees in academia?

T. E.: I’ve been in my current role for a few years now, and already I’ve dealt with the entire spectrum—from individuals working through, like Lindsay said, normal processes such as figuring out how to achieve a work-life balance to individuals who have needed to seek professional help and who were very honest about that.

N. V.: I have put in place a career development class at the University of Kentucky, and so students come to me more to try to figure out what they’re going to do next in their career and what they can do to best prepare. So they usually experience the stress and anxiety of not knowing the way and not knowing how to find the way. They are also very frustrated at the lack of career development resources that they have within their department, through their individual PI, and even at the institutional level.

SC: Do you think that academia makes it harder for trainees to seek help with mental health issues?

L. B.: Generally speaking, even though we have made some very positive gains, mental health stigma still heavily exists. In academia, as soon as you have a problem in the lab, you’re supposed to go to your immediate adviser. Often, though, advisers are so busy or so high up on the totem pole that they may be hands-off in their mentoring approach. When trainees are able to meet them, there may be such a large disconnection that it’s impossible for the trainees to truly be transparent about what’s going on, whether it’s emotional issues, confusion about career goals, or any other professional development concerns.

Nathan Vanderford

Nathan Vanderford

Credit: Nathan Vanderford

N. V.: The grad student and postdoc population are in a uniquely vulnerable state, because so much of the trainee’s career hinges on the relationship with their PI. They don’t want to mess that up, and so if they don’t feel safe in exploring their feelings around their PI, they are going to feel repressed in seeking help from that person and even from others. In addition, often there is a tough guy-or-girl mentality prevailing in the academic environment that makes students less willing to seek out the help they may need.

T. E.: Academia has a culture of not showing anybody else that we’re struggling. I spend a lot of time helping people see that we are all trying to figure it out. Based on my personal—and other fellow trainees’—experiences, I would also say that it’s potentially a bit harder for female scientists to be in an environment that includes in majority strong male role models. Trainees often find themselves thinking, “I won’t be able to excel in academia if I can’t have a tough face all the time, because if I show any emotion I will be viewed weak.” That pressure in itself can be very detrimental.

SC: Do you have any advice for young scientists about what they can do if they find themselves struggling with mental health issues?

Lindsay Bira

Lindsay Bira

Credit: Lindsay Bira

L. B.: Social support is huge, and understanding that others are going through similar experiences can be very comforting. I suggest trying to understand on a more intimate level what your peers’ experiences are. Find the peers who are willing to be open about those experiences, and develop supportive friendships with them. There is also support that can be found in the community or online, through or hashtags on Twitter about graduate school stress, for example.

N. V.: Talk to somebody. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your PI. I always tell trainees that they need to seek out people who they can be very comfortable with to have critical and honest conversations about their health, their well-being, and their career-development issues.

T. E.: I also encourage trainees to have multiple mentors. The mentor or counselor that fits you academically or scientifically might be very different from the one that fits you for career development or personal growth. So talk to as many people as you can and build those relationships.

L. B.: Then if you don’t feel comfortable talking with somebody around you, and especially if you’re having significant symptoms of depression or anxiety, the next step is seeking mental health treatment. In the United States, for example, every university should have a counseling center that offers free or very low-cost treatment to students. Some students who feel nervous about going through the university system can look for providers through their insurance.

N. V.: If you feel like you need clinical help of some sort, don’t be ashamed to go and seek that. As an undergraduate I sought therapy, which allowed me to feel refreshed and more capable of dealing with the issues that were causing my anxiety and stress. Looking back, I wish I had done the same in graduate school and as a postdoc.

SC: Coming back to the survey, what do you hope it will accomplish?

T. E.: Getting people talking about mental health problems in academia was my primary goal. Then, of course, hopefully we will be able to shed some more light on this issue and use the data to guide graduate education and the support services offered by universities.

N. V.: From what I observe, trainees certainly see these issues and would like them addressed, but they feel like they can’t have an open conversation about mental health in academia. And without having a broad, open conversation about mental health, the problems and their roots cannot be addressed systematically. So I hope that the results from this study will help provide an international platform for discussion and eventually lead to the implementation of meaningful interventions.

L. B.: By simply starting a conversation that questions what kind of values we are communicating within academia and highlights mental health as a real issue, and by providing more holistic support, I think we can change the culture of graduate training and help students feel better cared for.

T. E.: Ultimately, if we don’t tackle mental health issues, not only will these individuals not find a career that is best-fitted for them, but academia is also potentially going to lose some amazing scientists. I don’t want to see trainees leave behind their passion for science just because they have been in an environment that has cultivated these issues and symptoms of stress, anxiety, and burnout.

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