A couple months ago, AMHC team member Lisa M attended the Max Planck Symposium for Alumni and Early Career Researchers (MPSAESCR) in Berlin. The event was held to connect alumni and early career researchers from all over the world, and to afford the opportunity to discuss with and learn from each other. Among topics such as Open Science and career development, the MPSAESCR also featured a panel on mental health for graduate students. Lisa writes about the proceedings from that meeting.
Over the last decade, emerging evidence has shown the rise of mental health problems in academia, especially among graduate students (Beiter et al., 2015, Evans et al., 2017, Levecque et al., 2017). Advocacy organizations like Active Minds and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) on Campus have devoting their work to support those who struggle with mental illness, and to destigmatize these conditions for years. However, research and advocacy can only do so much; indeed, for the mental health situation to improve, actual cultural change from within the academic community and their institutions needs to happen. So when a workshop is hosted to create a space for open communication and sharing to draft concrete action and institutional policy recommendations for improving support structures for PhD students within a leading institution like the Max Planck Society, it is an important step forward. During the workshop, the attending alumni and early career researchers were divided into smaller groups to discuss their personal grad school experiences – everything from the good and the bad. After identifying and discussing common stressors and counteracting factors, the groups moved on to formulate concrete measures that could be taken to improve grad student mental health.
They identified six problem categories, but let’s not call them that. Instead let’s view the following categories as opportunities for improvement: supervision, job and financial security, work demands, administrative and material support, work-family balance, and social environment (you can see find a summary of the outcomes here). In this blogpost, I want take a moment to reflect on two categories in particular – supervision and social environment (if you are interested in the full workshop report, find the link here). I find these two of special importance because they include concrete action items that every individual can take right away, without having to wait for top-down initiatives to accommodate and promote the mental well-being of students.
First, supervisors – the guiding light (or conversely, ghostly shadow?) in every grad students’ journey. As part of their role, supervisors are supposed to find balance in guiding students through their projects and providing constructive feedback, while not exercising too much control but ensuring the students’ independence. These three particular actions might be helpful to succesfully mentor grad students.
*Develop a PhD plan
A useful tool for supervision that balances guidance and independence is a PhD plan developed collaboratively by the supervisor and the student. This plan should ideally include a realistic (!!) time frame, goals and milestones, and alternative paths in case something does not work out. Providing students with a well-structured PhD plan gives them a road map to follow (and to return to if they get lost along the way), and by breaking down the project into smaller chunks it appears more doable and conveys a sense of achievement with each stepping stone they reach. Regarding a sense of achievement, supervisors should also discuss how to measure progress and explain that no matter how small or mundane a task may seem, all research activities are considered as work and count towards the main goal: completing grad school in a reasonable time frame, while preserving mental health.
*Schedule regular meetings
Regular meetings between supervisor and PhD, e.g. once a month, are an important measure in guiding students and helping them progress. It makes students feel less alone and regular accountability checks can also be motivating to stay on track with the research and ensure that potential roadblocks are detected and overcome in a timely manner.
*Spot warning signs for mental health problems and take action
As part of their professional and ethical responsibilities, supervisors must monitor and address students’ impairment in all areas of professional functioning, including mental health. Supervisors should learn how to spot (not treat) warning signs for mental distress and reach out to struggling students in an appropriate way and refer them to resources that can better address the issue at hand. However, many supervisors do not regularly make it a practice to check in formally or informally about their students’ mental health and this needs to change. Since addressing student’s mental health problems directly is difficult as the inherent power dynamics put students in a vulnerable position, a good way to approach students is to ask general, not too personal, questions and to let them know that there are confidential services for getting help. Likewise, if students disclose their struggles, supervisors should advise them to seek professional help. Naturally, student’s also have a role in monitoring their own (mental) health, and reading material or quick-guides to recognize psychological problems from their own behavior would be highly useful.
The second point I want to touch upon is the social environment. One major problem that many students face during grad school is social isolation. Being absorbed in their own research project, working until late (or early), and intense competition among students are not exactly helpful for building and maintaining relationships.
*Weekly/Monthly department meetings
To encourage a sense of community weekly or monthly, informal department events should be organized, where students from all stages can get to know each other and spend a couple hours away from their desks. Peer support is extremely valuable in decreasing feelings of isolation. It helps students understand that they are not alone in their situation and because they experience peers as their supporters instead of competition, healthy social relationships can be formed.
*Don’t believe (or join) the hype
It is not uncommon for scholars to pride themselves on working 80 hours a week, not sleeping for days, and not eating properly. But there is nothing heroic about not taking care of yourself and pushing your body and mind to the point of breakdown. These unhealthy and unsustainable behaviors should not be glamorized. Instead, take breaks and do something fun, be honest about your schedule – are you taking on too much work?, and check in with your peers on a genuine level (and surprise them with cake).
*Do not normalize mental health problems
Avoid normalizing mental health problems, especially in response to someone opening up to you. Yes, this is life and we are all stressed, you are right. But there are different degrees of stress, and each individual handles stress differently. Stress and constant worrying because of a busy work week is not equal to an anxiety disorder. Just like being nervous is not a panic attack, being sad is not depression, and perfectionism is not OCD. Moreover, experiencing long periods of repeated and/or multiple stressors significantly increase the likelihood of developing a psychiatric disorder. By normalizing mental health symptoms, those struggling can feel like they are not taken seriously and as if their problems don’t matter. And this again can be a barrier to seeking help. The best thing to do when someone confides in you is to listen and hold space for them.
The common thread in both themes seems to be the importance of community support – one fostering an environment in which students feel safe to openly share their experiences and struggles. For this reason we, an international group of current and former graduate students, founded the Academic Mental Health Collective. But although it is widely known that mental health conditions are prevalent throughout academia, they are still looked down upon and highly stigmatized. It is common to keep quiet and to not show any signs of what could be interpreted as weaknesses, a symptom of stigmatization itself*. This is why workshops like the one organized by Yorick Peterse and Maria Eichel at the Max Planck Symposium are so critical. Its results and the actions proceeding it, can bring real institutional change by starting a conversation with the Institutional Health Council (Betriebsliches Gesundheidsmanagement). This then moves beyond raising awareness, which as we are witnessing can easily be thrown off the ivory tower if not resulting in concrete change.
*I want to add that I believe this is not just because people are unwilling to open up, but because the current academic system perpetuates a culture that praises and rewards unhealthy and unsustainable behaviors and if you want to keep playing the game, you follow the rules.
Beiter, R., Nash, R., McCrady, M., Rhoades, D., Linscomb, M., Clarahan, M., & Sammut, S. (2015). The prevalence and correlates of depression, anxiety, and stress in a sample of college students. Journal of affective disorders, 173, 90-96.
Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Beltran-Gastelum, J., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. (2017). Mental Health Crisis in Graduate Education: The Data and Intervention Strategies. The FASEB Journal, 31(1 Supplement), 750-7.
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, 868–879