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Why World Mental Health Day matters for scientists

Today is World Mental Health Day, with this year’s theme focusing on the diverse challenges that young people around the globe face. In recent years, the psychological toll of academic training, in particular, has started to come out into the open, to the extent that some have dubbed it a crisis. The likely contributors are wide-ranging and complex—for example, difficult relationships with advisers, the highly competitive nature of academic research, uncertain career prospects, and poor work-life balance, to name just a few. But only by acknowledging the problem can the community begin to address it.

Earlier this year, a global online survey found that graduate students were more than six times likelier to show moderate to severe anxiety or depression than the general population. Earlier studies suggested that one-third of Ph.D. students in Flanders, Belgium, are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder like depression, and that depression afflicts almost half of STEM graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of academics have come forward with personal testimonies in an effort to dispel the taboo and stigma surrounding mental health challenges and to help others recognize and deal with potential signs of distress in themselves. Some career development professionals, university counselors, and faculty members are also working to start conversations about mental health challenges.

There is no single easy solution. The entire academic community needs to tackle the systemic factors that likely contribute to mental distress. Institutions should implement adequate support systems for mental health. Principal investigators should lead by example in promoting their own well-being and the well-being of their trainees. And trainees should be attentive to their own mental health so that, if they find themselves struggling, they can devise coping strategies and seek professional help when needed. But so far one thing is clear: There is much more yet to be done, and the conversation has really just begun.

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