Thursday, December 26, 2019

Mental health, part 2: Be a first responder

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

Welcome to the second half of a two-part series tackling this difficult, yet extremely important question. In last month’s column, I proposed that faculty need to first take care of our own mental health so that we can lead by example and be prepared to help our students. Now that you’ve secured your own oxygen mask, you’re ready to assist the person sitting next to you. Creating an environment that supports student mental health requires that we do three things: recognize the challenge, take action, and empower others.

Recognize the challenge.  In a 2014 survey of graduate students, 34.4% reported moderate to severe depression, 7.3% had thoughts of suicide, and 2.3% had plans for suicide. This study was conducted at a single university, but nationwide surveys show similar trends. This means that when you sit in a seminar room with ~40 grad students, on average 14 of those students are struggling with depression, 3 are considering suicide, and 1 has a plan. These are numbers that we can’t ignore. We also need to understand what mental illness is and isn’t. Mental illness is not a choice. It is not feeling sad, lacking motivation, or worrying too much. Those are the symptoms, not the cause. Mental illness is a physical illness. Like other illnesses, it can be traced to biochemical disruptions that impair the normal functioning of our cells. In the case of mental illness, those cells just happen to be in the brain.

Take action. As group leaders, lab safety is a critical part of our job. We are responsible for putting in place policies and training to minimize the risk of physical injury from the chemicals or equipment used in our labs. I would argue that we also have a responsibility to minimize the risk of mental injury by creating environments that support psychological safety. One example of a practical action you can take is to craft a well-being policy for your lab. This policy can articulate your support for things such as students taking time out of lab to visit a mental health professional or traveling home to cope with the loss of a family member. My own lab policy includes both of these items as well as flexible work hours to promote healthy work-life integration – sometimes the science sets our schedule for us, so going to the gym or running errands during the day is encouraged if that is what will allow someone to use their time most efficiently.

In addition to minimizing the risk of physical injury in our lab, we are responsible for providing basic first aid when an accident does occur. And, just as we need to know what to do if someone spills a chemical in their eye, we need to know how to respond if a student is suffering a mental health crisis. In the example of a chemical spill, we know to assess the nature of the spill: start the eye wash as quickly as possible, and then transport to a hospital or clinic if needed.  The same process applies when responding to a mental health emergency. There are simple steps we can learn to assess the risk of harm to that person or others, listen and respond with support and reassurance, and encourage follow up with a mental health professional. Just as there is a good chance we’ll have to respond to an accident in lab at some point in our careers, there is a good chance we’ll have to respond to a student mental health crisis. We need to be prepared for both.

Empower others. While there is much we can do as faculty to support student mental health, we are not the only ones who can create change. Many–if not most–of the successful initiatives I’ve seen are driven by students, postdocs, and staff. These can include promoting activities outside of lab, social awareness campaigns around mental health topics, and adding structure and feedback to the graduate program timeline. As faculty, we should be asking how we can empower and partner with those around us who are already taking positive action.

If this topic feels overwhelming, you are not alone. We were trained to be scientists, not mental health advocates. The good news is that we are capable of learning and growing, and big strides can be achieved even through small efforts. The next generation of science innovators is counting on us to get this right.


  1. Jen,

    Thanks for your continued insightful Tweets and for the flurry of blog posts over the holidays including these two on mental health. Mental health and well-being need to be talked about more. This is my first time commenting on this blog.

    1) There are important legal responsibilities and rights that employers (aka faculty) and employees (aka students) absolutely must be aware of when working through mental health issues in their academic workplaces. See this fact sheet by Cornell University

    2) This is my first time hearing about Mental Health First Aid (described as a “simple step” in the blog). Have you taken a course? What material is in the course? Their website does not say nor offer a phone or email to contact someone to ask. I am trying to learn whether their training is similar/different to another multi-day training I have already completed.

    3) I love the spirit of a lab manual with a section on well-being. Is this your current lab policy? (accessed through a link in the blog to a news article that then linked to the google doc). If yes, please be advised that I read several sentences in the section on mental health to violate some basic principles of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, and act that all employers must comply with by Federal law). These principles include employees retain the right to privacy and to choose if or when they disclose information to an employer. I left a more detailed comment in the Google Doc.

    I intend to post my own follow-up blog post on this topic on the Utah and Western Water blog once I pull together some further information.

    I get an error when I check the box "Notify me" so I would appreciate a shout out by email or twitter should you respond here.

    David Rosenberg

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