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Trainees and mental health: Let’s talk!

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Author: Graduate Student Association | Category: Of Interest | April 12, 2016

It's no secret that graduate students are especially susceptible to mental health issues, as we are often thrown into challenging, fast-paced situations where there is sometimes little support, few outlets for stress, and the stakes have never seemed higher.

Fortunately, there are people who care about addressing this issue, and multiple initiatives have been created to study and address this problem. 

One such initiative is the Grad Health Survey, a research project by Drs. Teresa Evans, UT Health Science Center San Antonio, Nathan Vanderford, Univ. of Kentucky, and Lindsay Bira, UT Health Science Center San Antonio.

Take the Survey Here

If you complete the survey, you will be eligible to win prizes such as an Amazon Kindle Fire and Starbucks gift cards. Win-win for everyone.

From the project's LinkedIn page:

- This project is in need of survey respondents that will result in a better understanding of the impact of stress, anxiety, depression, and burn-out on graduate students' and postdoctoral fellows' health and well-being.

- The trainee health survey 2016 is a short, 10 minute survey designed to shed light on the mental health and well-being of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows across the nation.

- The goal of this study is to investigate the role of career preparation and outlook in the promotion of trainee health. The results will provide insight into the levels of distress in trainees as well as common issues in graduate training.

- This understanding would help identify ways in which trainee needs might be better met.

Science Magazine

The Grad Health Survey was recently featured in Science Magazine with interviews from our very own Dr. Teresa Evans and Dr. Lindsay Bira

Science Careers: What prompted you to launch the survey?

Evans: My interest in helping trainees began when I was still a graduate student in the field of neuroscience. I started organizing career development programs, which soon led to my current academic leadership and advising position. In this new role, I was astounded by the number of trainees coming through my door that were experiencing some form of anxiety, depression, stress, or burnout. I also wanted to continue doing research and, being fresh out of grad school and in need of guidance, I went to Nathan, whom I had met on Twitter, with the idea for the survey. Nathan was immediately supportive. With the both of us also needing expertise in the area of neuropsychology, we then turned to Lindsay, who was someone I knew would be eager to help.

Vanderford: I was interested in doing this study because, looking back on my years as a graduate student in molecular and cellular biochemistry and then as a postdoc, I can certainly remember instances in which I had issues with anxiety and stress, at the very least. And I was in a situation where I felt like I needed permission from my [principal investigators (PIs)] to go and seek career development or even clinical counseling. Many of my feelings stemmed from my belief that my PIs wanted me to become a faculty member, and at the time I didn’t want to be that. They didn’t give me a platform to express any other kinds of ideas for a career, and so I just felt very repressed. I think that’s a major career development and potential mental health issue, when students and postdocs don’t feel like they have the ability to explore their options.

Bira: I similarly had a somewhat difficult experience in graduate school. In clinical psychology land, what’s communicated as valuable during the Ph.D. in terms of long-term career goals is academia. I was always much more clinically oriented and had a lot of difficulty figuring out whether that was something that was okay. Also, the stress load of graduate school was outstanding, and I struggled with establishing a proper work-life balance. So, when Teresa and Nathan reached out to me, I felt passionate about contributing from the mental health perspective to get a good picture of what might be going on for students at the graduate training level.

SC: What range of mental health issues do you encounter among trainees in academia?

T. E.: I’ve been in my current role for a few years now, and already I’ve dealt with the entire spectrum—from individuals working through, like Lindsay said, normal processes such as figuring out how to achieve a work-life balance to individuals who have needed to seek professional help and who were very honest about that.

N. V.: I have put in place a career development class at the University of Kentucky, and so students come to me more to try to figure out what they’re going to do next in their career and what they can do to best prepare. So they usually experience the stress and anxiety of not knowing the way and not knowing how to find the way. They are also very frustrated at the lack of career development resources that they have within their department, through their individual PI, and even at the institutional level.

SC: Do you think that academia makes it harder for trainees to seek help with mental health issues?

L. B.: Generally speaking, even though we have made some very positive gains, mental health stigma still heavily exists. In academia, as soon as you have a problem in the lab, you’re supposed to go to your immediate adviser. Often, though, advisers are so busy or so high up on the totem pole that they may be hands-off in their mentoring approach. When trainees are able to meet them, there may be such a large disconnection that it’s impossible for the trainees to truly be transparent about what’s going on, whether it’s emotional issues, confusion about career goals, or any other professional development concerns.

N. V.: The grad student and postdoc population are in a uniquely vulnerable state, because so much of the trainee’s career hinges on the relationship with their PI. They don’t want to mess that up, and so if they don’t feel safe in exploring their feelings around their PI, they are going to feel repressed in seeking help from that person and even from others. In addition, often there is a tough guy-or-girl mentality prevailing in the academic environment that makes students less willing to seek out the help they may need.

T. E.: Academia has a culture of not showing anybody else that we’re struggling. I spend a lot of time helping people see that we are all trying to figure it out. Based on my personal—and other fellow trainees’—experiences, I would also say that it’s potentially a bit harder for female scientists to be in an environment that includes in majority strong male role models. Trainees often find themselves thinking, “I won’t be able to excel in academia if I can’t have a tough face all the time, because if I show any emotion I will be viewed weak.” That pressure in itself can be very detrimental.

SC: Do you have any advice for young scientists about what they can do if they find themselves struggling with mental health issues?

L. B.: Social support is huge, and understanding that others are going through similar experiences can be very comforting. I suggest trying to understand on a more intimate level what your peers’ experiences are. Find the peers who are willing to be open about those experiences, and develop supportive friendships with them. There is also support that can be found in the community or online, through or hashtags on Twitter about graduate school stress, for example.

N. V.: Talk to somebody. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your PI. I always tell trainees that they need to seek out people who they can be very comfortable with to have critical and honest conversations about their health, their well-being, and their career-development issues.

T. E.: I also encourage trainees to have multiple mentors. The mentor or counselor that fits you academically or scientifically might be very different from the one that fits you for career development or personal growth. So talk to as many people as you can and build those relationships.

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