Noelia Do Carmo proposes awareness as the first step to tackle common mental-health issues in academia. By doing so she invites us to question some usual behaviors in the research practice.
Noelia Do Carmo Blanco,
a personal account
A therapist and neuroscientist, Noelia Do Carmo has devoted her research to diverse fields in cognitive and clinical neuroscience, by using behavioral and electrophysiological techniques. She is a former Fulbright scholar and a current Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellow.
Mental health issues in researchers are widespread and worrying. The CACTUS Mental Health Survey Report (Cereyo et al., 2020) revealed that over 50% of the 13, 000 responders have experienced depression or anxiety symptoms related to their careers, with 37% of researchers from different career stages having reported seeking help. This survey indicates academics work in a highly competitive environment, with a heavy workload and low stability. On top of that, it also shows that different forms of abuse of power, such as discrimination or bullying are not uncommon (van Scherpenberg et al., 2021). Such working conditions can induce stress, burnout and other mental and physical health issues. Accordingly, the mental health problems in academia surpass those in the general population (Urbina Garcia, 2020; Levecque et al., 2017), which has a huge impact on science. For instance, it explains, in part, why some labs are struggling to find qualified postdocs (Woolston, 2022).
Given the high prevalence of mental health issues and work dissatisfaction, prevention seems the most viable strategy for tackling the situation and promoting the needed change in the current state of affairs. Increasing awareness of the potential stressors that affect a scholar’s mental health could be the first step in prevention. Training in coping skills like resilience and independent mentoring support should also be provided.
Researchers suffer from stress at all stages of their careers. Postdoctoral fellows and faculty are not immune to high pressure to publish and peer-comparison among many other stressors. The aforementioned survey gives a broad perspective of the situation. In the second part of this article, I focus on PhD students as one of the most vulnerable groups in the academic ladder. The aim is two-fold:
- prevention of mental health issues in PhD students by increasing awareness
- helping faculty to reflect on their own behaviour and practices
What I wish I knew when I started my PhD
I am sure you have started your PhD with great enthusiasm. Maybe you have the goal of contributing to the world, or maybe you are passionate about learning new things. Your PhD should be a fulfilling experience. Yet, if you start feeling anxious, depressed or stressed by your PhD, there are some questions you should ask yourself. Here are a few of them:
How does your advisor treat you? Are they benevolent or authoritative? Do they care about your interests and career goals? Do they make time for you? Do you want to keep a distance from your advisor, or do you feel neglected? Do you feel overwhelmed frequently? Have you been told that if you do not do what your PI wants, you will not get a good recommendation letter? Do you feel pressure to publish at any cost? Are you often expected to work longer hours than stipulated in your contract? Do you get credit for your job when things flourish? Are you reminded that it is ‘your’ PhD when things are difficult? Do you feel you know very little and maybe you are not good enough for the programme? Do you feel at the mercy of your advisor? Do you feel discriminated against because of your ethnic minority or gender?
If some of these points resonate with you, maybe you are not in the nurturing environment that one would need to thrive in academia. Be kind to yourself. Burnout mostly happens when someone cares about their job. Try to get some perspective. This might be complicated, but without distancing from the cause of stress, one cannot think clearly or take any action. Remember that your symptoms might represent some dysfunction in your working environment. You should not have to cope alone. Seek support from those around you and from professionals. You might fear social stigma, but when you reach out to your peers, you will find out that your experiences are not isolated. Some people consider that stress, anxiety and overwork are normal in research. This should not be the case.
Do not listen to self-limiting thoughts. Remember that high levels of stress lead to low self-efficacy. One does not need to be the most prolific scholar to thrive in science. Take things slowly when you need to. Think of what makes a PhD worthwhile for you, and enjoy the journey without focusing on the results. Be intentional and present, while allowing yourself to regularly disconnect from the programme. This can be attained by participating in community activities in a compassionate and safe environment.
Re-assessing the high pressure, publication-focused and outcome-driven research work-culture would definitely benefit science. As such, quality should be encouraged over quantity. This would not only help to address the current replication crisis in many fields, but would also impact job satisfaction.
Fortunately, some staff are supportive and allow autonomy to junior fellows, which fosters their psychological well-being. Similarly, certain universities have offices dedicated to institutional equity as part of the effort to tackle discrimination and harassment. More initiatives should promote the creation of psychological support spaces where one can speak freely, without the fear of retaliation or negative impact on their career.
N.B. A stressor can be defined as a factor perceived as threatening by a subject.
Burnout can be defined as a state of physical and/or mental exhaustion due to continuous stress.
Noelia Do Carmo Blanco
Postdoctoral fellow, Hospital Vithas, Valencia, Spain
Cerejo, C., Awati, M., & Hayward, A. (2020). Joy and stress triggers: A global survey on mental health among researchers. CACTUS Foundation.
Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868-87.
van Scherpenberg, C., Bultema, L., Jahn, A., Löffler, M., Minneker, V., & Lasser, J. (2021). Manifestations of power abuse in academia and how to prevent them. Elephant in the lab. https://elephantinthelab.org/manifestations-of-power-abuse-in-academia-and-how-to-prevent-them/
Urbina Garcia, A. (2020). What do we know about university academics' mental health? A systematic literature review. Stress and Health, 36(5), 563-585.
Woolston, C. (2022). Lab leaders wrestle with paucity of postdocs. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-02781-x