Special Issue: Mental Health in Academia - When the academic dream turns into a nightmare

Newsletter

Simone Lackner,

a personal account

Simone Lackner is a multidisciplinary scientist with a degree in Molecular Biology, a Ph.D. in Systems Neuroscience and postdoctoral training in Complexity and Computational Social Science. As a ReMO Ambassador and the founder & team lead of Soapbox Science Lisbon, Simone is an empathic advocate for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Wellbeing in academia and beyond. With her new project The Empathic Scientist, she wants to create a collective, a safe space for discourse and develop interventions that improve well-being in academic research culture with impact on organizational policies

‘Another failed experiment! My paper was not accepted! My grant got rejected! I worked all weekend!'

When frustrations accumulate, stress response cycles (Ron & Reznick, 2015) are not completed, balanced nutrition is neglected and the need for caffeine, nicotine and alcohol consumption increases, perfect conditions are created for anxiety and insomnia that impact cognitive and physical capabilities. Add to this toxic mix financial instability, uncertainty of career progression, difficult relationships with teammates or supervisors, and a lack of support system, and you have all the ingredients for a mental health crisis. The Academic Dream turns into a Nightmare.

The Academic Dream

The Academic Dream can be understood as the privilege of securing existential needs while focusing on lifelong learning to discover the unknown and build human capital for society. This dream attracts ambitious, self-disciplined and out-of-the-box thinkers that, with burning curiosity and inexhaustible commitment, have a strong personal desire to get to the bottom of important questions. Researchers quench their thirst for knowledge while serving humanity with solutions to unsolved societal problems. These challenges, especially within cutting-edge science and high-risk/high-gain projects, can be extremely inspiring, self-motivating and rewarding to work obsessively long hours, weekends and even holidays with the downside that work-life balance and well-being is not always cared for. Competing for a small percentage of public funds, the Academic Dream promises life-long intellectual freedom for individuals that persevere.

More individuals than ever are starting out to pursue a Ph.D., but less than 4% attain permanent academic positions and even fewer (< 0.5%) are privileged to win full professorship (The Royal Society, 2010). Despite this precarity of job opportunities within the ivory tower, 56% of graduate students still believe in the Academic Dream (Woolston, 2019). Unsurprisingly, reported symptoms of anxiety, depression, imposter syndrome, burn-out and suicidal ideation are on the rise (Satinsky et al., 2021).

Evans et al (2018) reported that graduate students (39%) worldwide are more than six times as likely to experience anxiety and depression as compared to the general population (Evans et al., 2018). There is increasing evidence through numerous social surveys at different institutions around the globe that there is a mental health crisis in academia.

A mental health crisis in academia?

It’s possible that people prone to anxiety and depression are just six times more likely than others to pursue PhDs. But that seems unlikely, especially when we have a closer look at the available data highlighting the causes of the mental health crisis in academia.

Since 2011, the Journal Nature has been running a survey across 7 continents and in 6 different languages on early career researchers, identifying predictors for well-being and mental health issues (Woolston et al, 2015, 2017, 2019, 2021; Russo, 2011, 2013):

- Bullying, Sexual Harrassment, Discrimination, all forms of Microagression

- Supervision

- Inclusion of Diversity

- Equity

- Social support system; especially for international students

- Competitive research landscape - “publish or perish” culture

- Precarity of contracts - financial instability and uncertainty

- High competition for subsequent academic jobs

Not surprisingly, historically marginalized groups - the minorities of academia - such as women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, students from low-income economies, first-generation academics and members of the LGBTQ+ community, seem to be affected the most (Satinsky et al. 2021).

The Nightmare

On average, according to Irrsinnig Menschlich, it takes 8 years to seek help. Self-degrading neural patterns manifest in the brain during this period, jeopardizing career advancement due to negative thinking loops, toxic behavior, imposter syndrome, burnout, and in the worst case scenario, suicide. As a consequence, people suffering from the impact of mental health issues fostered by our research culture are more prone to leave academia.

How to combat the mental health crisis in academia?

Researchers must become increasingly aware of what they can do to build resilience, keep their life balanced and sustain their well-being. However, there is only so much an individual can do for their own well-being. It is not only the researchers, but also faculty and stakeholders who lack awareness of how their own behavior, attitude and leadership style feeds into a dysfunctional and toxic research environment that impacts researchers’ mental health and consequently their career progression.

When the Academic Dream turns into a Nightmare (Graphic inspired by my research on locomotor behavior of larval zebrafish in response to changes in illumination)

Without targeted interventions to change and improve cultural structures and organizational policies of academia, the concept of the “leaky pipeline” will be sustained. Ultimately, this will lead to the loss of highly-trained talent and culturally diverse thinkers essential for identifying and addressing global scientific challenges (Mori, 2022).

Academic mental health should not only matter as a public health concern but also for research policy and society as a whole.

Some advances have been made, and most institutions have already reacted by offering access to coaches and psychologists to address individual issues of mental health. But that is not enough! This bottom-up approach is treating anxiety and depression induced by research culture as an individual health issue rather than a systemic health issue. It’s time to take a top-down approach and ask the uncomfortable question of how our academic system and culture contribute to these issues.

“When one person has asthma, that person should see a doctor. But when 40% of people have asthma, and 80% of people have breathing problems, something is wrong with the air.” Barbara W. Sarnecka in “The Writing Workshop: Write More, Write Better, Be Happier in Academia.”

Academia urgently needs to take responsibility and invest in 1) institution-wide interventions that systematically monitor and promote well-being and mental health, 2) independent and neutral conflict management officers that mediate interpersonal relationship problems, bullying and sexual harassment and last but not least, 3) on-site career development officers, who not only support graduates but also faculty and research staff to grow “soft” skills for personal development and self-knowledge, that is essential for healthy team work, cultural-sensitive leadership, and individual career progression in academia and beyond.

The building blocks of a successful research institute are its scientists. In order to nurture well-trained and confident scientists who can collaborate with respect, tolerance, trust, unity, inclusion and equity, and contribute their unique talents to tackle the world's biggest challenges; the career development of each member, as well as their well-being and mental health, must be cared for.

Call to Action

I am a voluntary Ambassador of the Researchers Mental Health Observatory (ReMO), which is a Horizon 2020 European-funded COST-Action programme, that brings together an international European community of early-career researchers, faculty, academic human resource managers, coaches, trainers and practitioners for higher education, as well as science policy stakeholders. It is a growing network of over 240 members that collaborate across different scientific disciplines to identify which practices and actions are effective at creating research environments that foster well-being to prevent the development of mental health issues at the workplace. With our Manifesto we call on all stakeholders in the research ecosystem to develop policies to monitor, improve and maintain well-being and mental health in research environments. We have three different Working Groups that are based on a typology of levels that are identified in the literature where action can be taken: on systemic, institutional and individual level. Join us!

Simone Lackner
Cost Action - Researchers Mental Health Observatory,
Soapbox Science Lisbon, Independent Scholar
lacknersimone@gmail.com
Twitter @MagSimal

References:

Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36(3), 282–284. https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089

Mori, A. S. (2022). “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Academia to Guide Society.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 37(1), 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2021.10.010

Rom, O., & Reznick, A. Z. (2015). The Stress Reaction: A Historical Perspective. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1007/5584_2015_195

The Royal Society (2010). The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity, Royal Society Policy Document. https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/publications/2010/scientific-century/

Russo, G. (2011) Graduate students: Aspirations and anxieties. Nature, 475, 533–535. https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7357-533a

Russo G. (2013) Education: Financial burden. Nature 501, 579–581.z https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7468-579a

Satinsky, E. N., Kimura, T., Kiang, M. V., Abebe, R., Cunningham, S., Lee, H., Lin, X., Liu, C. H., Rudan, I., Sen, S., Tomlinson, M., Yaver, M., & Tsai, A. C. (2021). Systematic review and meta-analysis of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation among Ph.D. students. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-93687-7

Woolston, C. (2015) Graduate survey: Uncertain futures. Nature, 526, 597–600 . https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7574-597a

Woolston, C. (2017) Graduate survey: A love–hurt relationship. Nature, 550(7677), 549–552. 797 https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7677-549a 798

Woolston, C. (2019) PhD poll reveals fear and joy, contentment and anguish. Nature, 575, 403–406 doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-03459-7

Woolston, C. (2021) How burnout and imposter syndrome blight scientific careers. Nature, 599, 703-705 https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-03042-z

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