Letters to Young Scientists banner

Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Professors must support the mental health of trainees during the COVID-19 crisis

Even before COVID-19 hit, there was a mental health crisis in academia. A 2018 study, for instance, found that rates of anxiety and depression in graduate students were nearly six times greater than what’s seen in the general population.

Now, the pressures that may lead to mental health challenges in academia are even more extreme. Many scientists are worried about their own health as well as that of their families. Some are anxious about their future job prospects. And nearly everyone has been adjusting to a new work situation—one that revolves around digital communication rather than face-to-face contact.

I am a mental health researcher and educator. But even I was unprepared for the wave of emotional challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic would carry with it. Removing vital social contact while suddenly amplifying daily stressors and uncertainty is an unsettling recipe for mental health issues.

We’re starting to see the mental health impacts of COVID-19 in the general population. A preprint posted this month reported that U.S. adults surveyed in April of this year were eight times more likely to meet criteria for serious mental distress compared with U.S. adults surveyed in 2018. Dozens of other studies are underway to track the mental health ramifications of COVID-19. In the meantime, the United Nations issued a statement last week arguing that the international community should do more to tackle what appears to be an emerging mental health crisis.

In my own research, my colleagues and I have begun to see increased rates of depression and decreased well-being among U.S. college students who we’ve been tracking over the past year. It’s not yet clear whether something similar is happening among graduate students and postdocs. But a survey of nearly 5000 early-career researchers in the United Kingdom conducted over the past month found that three-quarters of respondents reported low levels of mental well-being. In addition, roughly two-thirds were worried about their future plans and finances, according to a preliminary report released Monday.

Professors must take a stand to support the well-being of their lab members during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is our responsibility to do this and not let the burden fall upon our trainees to advocate alone for their right to mental wellness. Research shows that supportive mentorship leads to increased student well-being, academic success, and retention in the sciences. It isn’t a stretch to imagine that mentorship will be even more critical during a time of turbulence, uncertainty, and emotional distress. But just how can professors help to “flatten” a rising mental health crisis among their trainees? Here are some tips for how to support mental wellness in your lab during COVID-19:

1. Advocate for Mental Wellness. Don’t shy away from discussing mental health with your group members. Tell them that you understand the stresses they are under; that it’s OK to feel sad, frustrated, and exhausted; and that they should prioritize their own health above any work priorities. You should also check in with individual group members to see how they’re doing and whether there’s anything you can do to support them, keeping in mind that some people may not feel comfortable disclosing mental health challenges or asking for help. In addition, you may want to send all your group members information about mental health resources, such as local counseling services and online mindfulness-based stress reduction exercises. Sleep, exercise, and time outdoors can all help with mental wellness, so you might want to suggest to your trainees that they keep up with those activities as well.

2. Stay Connected. Feelings of loneliness and isolation put us at elevated risk for serious anxiety and depression. But even though you and your lab members are physically distant from each other, that doesn’t mean you have to be socially disconnected. My lab has continued to connect through Zoom, a platform that we use for weekly lab meetings, informal book clubs (we recently discussed Lab Girl), and small group check-ins. I give my group members the option of turning off their cameras during virtual meetings so that they can give their eyes a break, or so that they can move around. The meetings have been a social lifeline for us and have helped to maintain our sense of lab community. I’ve also found that one-on-one meetings with my lab mentees have been important for checking in and discussing issues that might not come up during group settings.

3. Be Flexible. Don’t assume that your team members will be working at the same pace or in the same manner as before. Work routines, schedules, and deadlines may need adjusting. You should take care to give your group members the time and space they need to accomplish their goals while prioritizing taking care of their mental and physical health. Check in regularly to find out how you can support their needs. Also make a point of explicitly telling everyone—including yourself—that it’s OK to work more slowly, or to not work at all depending on the situation. I’ve had to do that myself, as an academic mother of 3- and 5-year-old boys, because I’ve been struggling to balance taking care of my children full-time with my scientific responsibilities. I’ve tried to be open with my students that my schedule and timelines will be different than before the pandemic. It’s my hope that sharing my own struggles with my trainees will normalize an open dialogue and will signal to them that we can be flexible together.

4. Find Meaning (When Possible). Research shows that when we can find meaning during times of adversity, it can help us cope with stress and can enhance well-being. So, depending on what your lab studies, you might want to think about incorporating COVID-19 into your research and discussions. For instance, you could alter an ongoing study or come up with an idea for a new study. Or, you could arrange a reading group that’s focused on understanding recent scientific advances related to COVID-19. That might help your trainees appreciate on a deeper level that the work of scientists is needed now more than ever.

There isn’t a single formula for supporting your trainees through a crisis; all professors will do it differently. I also realize that it’s hard for many academics to discuss mental health and personal struggles. But I’d argue that we need to have an open dialogue to effectively tackle the current wave of mental health challenges together. This is a difficult time, but it can be made better if we care for one another and do our part to provide support and understanding.

Send your thoughts, questions, and suggestions for future column topics to letterstoyoungscientists@aaas.org and engage with us on Twitter.

Read more from Letters to Young Scientists