Thursday, December 26, 2019

Mental health, part 1: Secure your oxygen mask first

I’m super excited to now be sharing my thoughts and advice on navigating academia via my monthly Office Hours column in Chemical & Engineering News! I’ll be posting unedited versions of my columns on delay here on my blog, and you can catch the best and latest versions (and ask your question!) at my C&EN Office Hours site. As always, comments welcome – these topics impact us all, and we should all be part of the dialogue!

I would like to raise mental health awareness among faculty members within my department. I think there is generally a lack of awareness and advocacy for student mental health, particularly for graduate students. I would like to ask if you have specific advice on what I can do as a faculty member, and what obstacles I should anticipate. -Anonymous assistant professor

There is a documented mental health crisis among students and postdocs. As faculty, we are often the first responders in this crisis, and there is much we can do to provide support and help individuals seek out treatment when needed. But, before we get to that, there’s something else we need to talk about, and this column will be the first in a two-part series aimed at addressing this question.

If someone is drowning, who should they look to for help? Someone else who is drowning? Of course not. They should look to the person who has made it out of the water and knows where to find the life preserver. Same goes for the mental health crisis. As faculty, we can’t be of much help to students struggling with their mental health if we’re not taking care of our own. After all, how can we serve as effective mentors and teachers if we don’t have the emotional bandwidth to meet our own needs? How can we expect students and postdocs to practice good self-care and seek out help when they need it if we don’t? (Or if we’re afraid to admit that we do).

It’s good that we talk about student and postdoc mental health, but we also need to talk about faculty mental health. Let’s face it, this job self-selects for people who have very high expectations for ourselves and obsess over our craft, and places us in an environment where failure is the norm and isolation is the default. We are perfectly primed to struggle with stress, anxiety, burnout, and depression. What can we do about this? Talking about it helps, and we also need to change the culture to value self-care and de-stigmatize seeking professional help.

Let’s tackle self-care first. We spend a lot of time discussing how much we work and how little we sleep. Could it be that we do this because we think that everyone else around us is working harder than us, and that breeds insecurity? If that’s the case, then this creates a self-reinforcing cycle that quickly spirals out of control. What if we intentionally shifted our conversations to talk more about what we do when we’re not working – the concert we went to last night, the yoga class we’re going to this afternoon, the family vacation planned for next month. Sometimes my schedule makes it such that the only time I can get out for a run is during the “work day.” I used to surreptitiously change into my running clothes and then bolt for the door, hoping to make it outside without anyone seeing me and thinking I was slacking on work. That’s ridiculous. I should feel comfortable managing my time how I see best, and proud – not ashamed – of modeling good self-care for my lab members.

And then there’s the topic of seeing a counselor, therapist, or other mental health professional. While students and postdocs are becoming increasingly open about this, there remains a much larger stigma for faculty. We hold a view that seeking out help means we’re weak, and if we’re weak, then we don’t belong in leadership positions. I’d argue that we need to embrace the opposite mindset. It’s hard to believe that any faculty member is immune from stress and burnout, and many will also face depression or anxiety. Everyone struggles, and the people who have the self-awareness to recognize they need help and the courage to seek it out are exactly the type people we want in positions of leadership. I personally have found value in the ability of a counselor to re-center my perspective and help me manage stress productively. This in turn makes me more effective at work and a more enjoyable person to be around.

So, how do we change the culture? It can feel daunting to think about this, but our culture is just comprised of all of the things that we think, say, and do. We can join together and recognize that we have a problem, start talking openly about it, and decide that taking care of ourselves is something that we value. It’s only when we get this right for ourselves that we’ll be prepared to help our students and postdocs. Stay tuned for more on that topic next month.


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