A Conversation about Mental Wellness and an Important Distinction…(3/n)

Some days ago, a friend in academia sent me this question to ponder (mildly edited, and excerpted with permission):

I am heartened to see increasing visibility and discussion around anxiety in academia. I was curious as to your thoughts on why so many graduate students, postdocs, and professors struggle with this. Are those folks who have a higher propensity for it drawn disproportionately to academia? And/or does the academic work environment induce it? And perhaps most importantly: what structural changes might be made to the incentives and social environment of academia to reduce the anxiety-related issues for academics?

It took us several emails to get to what I think is the crux of the issue, or at least for me to understand how I view this question. Of course, I began by saying that it’s doubtless a bit of both:

It’s certainly a question that comes up again and again. I haven’t looked into research on this subject, so what I say is thoughts/experience. As with everything, I suspect it’s a bit of both of the factors you mention. I think in particular the lack of structured time in academia proves to be a challenge for many, many people with anxiety. Also the extremely delayed gratification for all work, and the lack of positive feedback, or growth-enabling, actionable feedback more generally. The latter is definitely something I struggled with a lot.

I’ve learnt from therapy that self-reflection can be both a blessing and a curse for mental health, and self-reflection likely correlates with the tendency to reflect carefully in general. Which is exactly the kind of person that would find a life dedicated to thought appealing. Personally, I realised that a lot of my struggles arose because I applied my scientific ways of reflecting onto myself. This can be useful sometimes, but it can also exacerbate poor mental health, and did so for me.

One thing I worried about a lot before going to therapy was if somehow my mood swings, my brain’s ability to focus intensely, obsessively and for long periods on work (a terrible thing for my mental health) was necessary for being a good, creative scientist. That turned out to be completely false. I am a much better scientist with almost no mood swings and with better mental health hygiene practices. I wonder if creative types are less likely to seek out help because of this fear…

In terms of structural improvement, I think the biggest thing would simply be better access to therapists, pretty much everywhere but definitely starting in college. Literally everyone I talk to about mental health (including me) had a bad experience with a therapist in undergrad, which scared them away from getting help later on. Other than that, I’m hopeful that more people talking about this everywhere and all the time would encourage people to find support.

He responded:

I was intrigued that you found that obsessiveness did not correlate with you being a better scientist. I’ve always assumed that those things went together; I think we have a lot of company in that assumption.

As for me, I have always sub-consciously and sometimes consciously self-identified as someone who does not struggle with anxiety or depression i.e. “As an outgoing, confident person, I’m not the sort of person who would ever experience this sort of thing, therefore these feelings that I’m feeling … aren’t actually happening. QED.”

Not very intellectually honest, with cognitive dissonance out the wazoo, I know, but so goes this [the?] human mind.

We then exchanged a couple of articles—I sent along this piece by Alex Riley on mental health and freelance journalism, and received in exchange this piece by Ardon Shorr, titled “Grad School Is Hard on Mental Health. Here’s an Antidote.” The author of this latter article describes how putting effort into science communication helped them through the stress of grad school.  While I certainly concur that science communication is a wonderful thing and can help curb the dissatisfaction of grad school’s delayed gratification problems, my response to this article wasn’t entirely positive, and I wondered why:

I skimmed this article because it started to annoy me, leading me to realise the crux of what you were getting at—there must be those people who struggle emotionally/mentally entirely because of academia (seemingly like the person who wrote this article, if their problems were all solved by engaging in science communication), and others of us who would struggle with mental health no matter what, but whose condition is exacerbated by academia. The improvements to my mental health have had almost nothing to do with changes to science/academia, but there’s clearly much that could be improved within academia that would benefit all of our mental health. Without making this distinction clearly, we’re likely to ignore one of these two facets.

So you can imagine academia as a cafeteria serving unhealthy food. All of us eating here could likely be healthier if we had access to better food, and some of us might be unhealthy only because of the food we’re eating here, but better food wouldn’t solve everyone’s problems–some of us would still need to go to the doctor more often, exercise more, and take medication (and yeah, we need health insurance for most of that). We’re going to have to hold this distinction–academia can and should be better about taking mental health into consideration, but that can’t be the whole answer–if we want anything to change.

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