Mental Health Awareness at Communications Biology

Although mental health should be a priority all year round, in honour of Mental Health Awareness week in the UK, we spoke to researchers whose shared experiences and initiatives are raising awareness of mental health issues in academia and providing some much-needed sources of help for researchers.

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This week is Mental Health Awareness week in the UK and at Communications Biology, we wanted to show our support for all initiatives that not only raise awareness of the mental health issues faced by researchers but also provide sources of support and safe platforms for those who wish to use them.  Regardless of race, gender, age, geographical location or research field, anyone can be affected by mental health issues. To support the need for more open discussions surrounding this issue, we spoke to four inspirational individuals who are steering initiatives and sharing their experiences in order to bring about changes in the academic research culture. 

Daniel Ranson is currently transitioning between his current role as a PhD researcher at the University of East London, and a Postdoctoral Research Associate position at King’s College London that he will start in June 2021.

In terms of how being in academia has affected his mental health, Daniel informs us:

‘I am by nature, an anxious person and whilst academia is not solely responsible for poor mental health, academia certainly fed on my mental health and wellbeing making things the worst they had ever been. There is a constant sense of competition in academia whereby you have to achieve certain standards before you can be considered successful, and the relentless self-assessment and critiquing of yourself and worrying what others think is anxiety inducing and mentally debilitating for me’

Despite Daniel’s struggles with the academic environment, he is continuing his journey in academic research and has developed some coping mechanisms that assist him in doing this…

‘The moment I accepted my poor mental health and mental illnesses, was the moment I started to cope better. I think the sooner we can all openly discuss mental health in the same way that we do physical health, the better. I would really recommend talking; it may be hard but just trust the goodwill and humanity of people around you (friends and family), or reach out to someone anonymously through charity initiatives if you feel you have nobody you trust. I also recommend Voices of Academia and #AcademicMentalHealth on twitter. They are really supportive spaces for people to engage with, or even just to read through and get advice/read questions for like-minded people!’’

Despite developing his own coping mechanisms, Daniel is aware that things need to be in place in academia in order to improve the wellbeing of researchers

‘There are so many things that need to change! If I had to choose just one thing it would be the way we measure success. It creates a really unhealthy culture for a group of intelligent, high fliers as people are always fighting to be the first/be top.  

The struggles surrounding mental wellbeing in academia are felt internationally and across disciplines, which will involve very different working environments.

Partha Sarathi Mishra is a primatologist based in India who likes to follow and observe monkey reality shows in their natural environment. Besides this, he is a lover of the ocean and would love to work with cetaceans some day! Partha experiences both euphoric and equally sad moments. As he puts it, he has ‘learned to see the light coming through the small slit!’. In the future he looks forward to travelling more, meeting new people and being a part of their stories. Whenever he can, he practices voice acting and tries to cycle! Right now Partha is in a transition phase between his PhD  and whatever is next!

In terms of how academia has affected his mental health, Partha states:

‘Academia has worked in two different ways for my mental health. Firstly, for my PhD. I worked on a remote island with very limited connectivity and a small population. That took a toll on my mental health as I had limited interaction with other people for four years. I suffered personal losses and some existing relationships were not working out so this also added to the existing problems. On top of that I ran out of fellowship funding and had to manage using my own finances. The lack of institutional support throughout this time did not give me any opportunity to address my mental health issues although I got support from my mentor and colleagues to get my work done in the best way possible. Also, here the transition from PhD. to a postdoctoral program is hard, which can be really stressful. However, academia/research is something that has been with me for a while. I do not believe that academia is the only route to research but if research is the major component of it, then it is something that gives me a sense of peace. I study monkeys and every moment I spend on this is absolute bliss!’

Partha also offers some advice for students and ECRs who may struggle with mental health issues... 

‘ I would suggest everyone sees a doctor to assess how serious their situation is. It did wonders for me. It is NOT A TABOO. In addition, reconnecting to people and having deeper human connections made a lot of difference. Access to nature also helped me a lot and I like voice acting which helped. Indeed, having hobbies and interests away from academia help a lot. It is important that one accepts that academia is just a part of life and there is a lot more to life. There are a lot of sources of support available online which I am aware of and whilst most are not run by health professionals, although they provide the safe space and platform, which people need. For example, on Instagram, I know of Therapize.India and on twitter I follow Voices of Academia and Dani Donovan’s account which I find helpful.’

In terms of what he thinks need to be done in order to make long lasting changes that improve the wellbeing of academics, Paratha adds:

’Institutional measures need to be in place. PIs should mention any health support their lab may be providing when they are looking for a candidate. The work also needs to be flexible and time for physical fitness must be provided. I also think that support groups and safe spaces where people can find others who are going through the same and realize that they are not alone, should be mandatory in every institute. I believe that real change can come only through institutionalized changes and access to professional care’.

Both Daniel and Partha have found some comfort and help in the form of social media platforms. We therefore reached out to two advocates for improved mental health in academia who have steered some of the very initiatives that have helped Daniel and Partha...

Dr Zoë Ayres is a Senior Scientist in the water industry, with a background in analytical chemistry. She is also a mental health advocate in her spare time, working to improve academic mental health support and provision.

Zoë was inspired to launch wellbeing initiatives for academics due to her own experiences.

‘I experienced depression during my PhD studies and felt alone. It wasn't until much later on I found out that approximately 1 in 2 PhD students experience common mood disorders like anxiety and depression during their PhD. I realised that mental health support at universities still has a long way to go and started advocating for improving resources available in my spare time. This includes making awareness posters and running campaigns, like the #100Voices project, where researchers openly discuss their mental health (more info at Zoë’s website)

On the relationship between mental health and research output as well as long-term changes that are needed, Zoë says:

‘Our research cannot be done without the people behind the research, and we all have mental health. Looking after our mental wellbeing has been proven to increase happiness and productivity so it really is win-win for everyone. Not being on the brink of burnout also can lead to improved creativity and better science

First - we need to talk openly about it. There is still a lot of stigma around mental health concerns, but it is only by starting a dialogue that we can identify issues within academia that affect mental health. The onus to look after our mental health is so often placed on the individual, but the institution has a huge role to play in terms of making the research culture a positive, inclusive place for all. Dragonfly Mental Health, a non-profit organisation I volunteer for, is making great gains in this space, working to improve support for both at the individual level and the institutional level’

Not only does mental health advocacy help those in need, but it also unites individuals from around the globe.

Dr Marissa Edwards is an award-winning Education-Focused lecturer at the UQ Business School at the University of Queensland, Australia. Her major research interests are mental health/mental illness in academia, PhD student well-being, as well as voice and organisational justice. She is always interested in connecting with others who share these interests! Marissa also delivers workshops and presentations about how to promote mental health in academic settings. You can find her at Twitter (@DrMarissaKate) and LinkedIn. In her spare time, Marissa loves travelling, seeing live music and spending time with her rescue dog Ziggy.

Marissa is passionate about her research on mental health in academia and it has lead her to launch many campaigns, which have united all of the researchers featured in this post:

‘I research mental health and mental illness at work, particularly in higher education settings, and I also have some lived experience of burnout. While reading and reviewing scholarly publications, I realised that very few academics tend to share their personal experiences with mental health issues. Many individual blogs exist, but I couldn’t find a single blog that captured a variety of stories. While quantitative studies can be very useful, I believe that opening up about our personal experiences can be so powerful. I was also inspired by Brene Brown’s work about vulnerability and connection. It’s through connecting with others, sharing our stories, and responding to others’ experiences with empathy that we realise we are not alone. In mentioning the blog, I also want to recognise the efforts of Zoë Ayres, Emily King, Syreeta Nolan and Daniel Ransom, who are part of the Voices of Academia team, as well as all our blog authors and readers – it would not have happened without them!’

Marissa also expresses her thoughts of the importance of mental health on productivity:

‘To be honest, I think that universities have long failed to recognize the importance of having a mentally healthy workforce. For too long, universities have valued profits and productivity over the well-being of their employees, which is simply wrong. We know from decades of research in organisations that when employees are physically and emotionally healthy, when they feel socially connected to colleagues, and when they feel valued and supported at work, this leads to better outcomes. For example, people are more productive, they are more engaged, and performance tends to increase too. So if universities really want high-performing employees, and if they really care about them, they should invest in their psychological health. It’s not a difficult concept to grasp, yet we know that too many academics and professional staff are struggling with high levels of stress and burnout. It’s encouraging that things are starting to change, but much more investment is needed’

Marissa also feels that so many measure are needed in order to ensure that there are long-term, positive changes with respect to mental health in academia:

‘There are so many changes that need to happen that it’s difficult to choose one only! My colleagues and I outlined some specific ideas in a recent Special Issue of the Journal of Management Education that we co-edited on mental health and psychological well-being in business schools, and many of those suggestions apply to multiple disciplines.

But as mentioned above, I think that cultural change is needed. Universities need to value their people over productivity and profits. And as my colleague Zoë Ayres has often argued, we need to change how we measure success in universities. In my view, success is having healthy employees who feel valued. Personally, I would love to see universities ranked on the self-reported well-being of their staff rather than the quality of their research output. I also think that this cultural change needs to happen to help PhD students, postdocs and early career academics in particular. We know from multiple research studies that many of these people experience significant mental health issues, but there is still so much stigma around seeking help. There aren’t enough PIs and PhD supervisors who value the mental health of their students. Finally, I want to emphasize that more counselling services are desperately needed, and these should be provided free of charge for students and faculty. Universities can create great mental health strategies, but a strategy means nothing unless you have leaders who are willing to create change and put accessible, practical supports in place.’ 

As Marissa suggests, academia is beginning to see changes in attitudes towards mental health, but there is still a very long way to go. Here at Communications Biology, we pride ourselves on publishing high-quality science, but we recognise that this can only come from those on top form, in a supportive environment. We want to thank Daniel, Partha, Zoë and Marissa, whose inspirational work is making a much-needed difference to the lives of many researchers. Whilst we all take the opportunity to discuss these issues during Mental Health Awareness Week, continued support for the improvement of wellbeing in academia must extend to all year round so that we can continue to take positive steps.

Karli Montague-Cardoso

Associate Editor, Springer Nature