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It's time for physicists to talk about mental health

31 May 2017

The physics community needs to have a serious discussion about the mental health challenges facing graduate students.

The author was prescribed antidepressants during her first year of graduate school. The discussion of mental health, including the use of medication, is taboo in many academic settings. Credit: Andrea J. Welsh

There is a great stigma about discussing one’s own mental health in our society. As a result, many people don’t know that others in their community have already found solutions or support for their issue.

This is a serious problem, especially in academia. A study this month in Research Policy concludes that about half of PhD students experience at least two symptoms of mental illness, and one-third have had at least four symptoms. Other formal and informal studies of graduate students have found that nearly half have symptoms aligning with depression; the biggest cause is difficulty taking care of family needs because of the demands of work. Despite groups such as Vanguard Women of Color in STEM and oSTEM that have recently held discussions on the topic, the physics community as a whole has yet to have a serious conversation about mental health.

In 2012 I entered my physics PhD program with a history of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, along with suspected ADHD and PTSD. The stress of the program exacerbated those issues to the point that, although I wasn’t considering leaving graduate school, I didn’t care about my well-being.

I turned to the Georgia Tech Counseling Center, which offers free individual and group counseling. Each student is entitled to only a limited number of individual sessions per year, so I attended group therapy. Besides consistency, I also wanted something inexpensive. Even with student insurance, weekly sessions of off-campus counseling would cost at minimum $160 a month, which was not something I could afford on my student stipend.

Group therapy was vital for me during my first year of graduate school, but it was not enough. At the end of the year, I added psychiatry appointments from the student health center. The doctor prescribed me antidepressants to reduce depression and anxiety. My fiancé is also a physics PhD student, and with his support I was able to get―and continue to get―the help I need to be productive. Apart from him, very few people in my daily work life were aware of my issues and how hard it was for me to do simple tasks like getting out of bed, showering, or reading an email.

Many people think of depression as generalized unhappiness, but they don’t realize the physical effects and impacts on day-to-day actions. For me, depression often comes in the form of sleepless nights, which make me tired throughout the day. Other times it emerges as cascading thoughts that cause me to lose my focus, or as headaches that make doing anything difficult. Often there is a fight inside my brain over which work to start on first; ultimately I do nothing because I can’t determine the best use of my time.

Starting a much-needed discussion

Although it remains a challenge, I am mostly able to be productive. I’ve also become active in mentoring other physics students. That is how I realized that many of my peers are experiencing mental health issues that are not getting addressed or treated sufficiently.

It was after I began those interactions with other students that I decided to broach the subject in a more public setting. I led a small conversation in my department about how to support those going through depression and other mental health issues. At that time, I was not “out”—I spoke as someone external from the group of people dealing with difficult mental health situations.

The conversation was dominated by two students. The first insisted that by going to the counseling center, it would be on his “record” and he would not be able to get a job. That’s false but a common concern. The other student questioned the merits of helping people with depression. If they were depressed, the student said, surely they were not doing as well as neurotypical people who would be better suited for jobs. As someone who suffered from depression yet was doing research, presenting at meetings, organizing a group, and running a conference, that angered me. However, in the eyes of that student and others, depressed people were hypothetical—I could not have been one of them because I would have been home in bed.

Many of the nearly 3700 PhD students surveyed recently in Belgium reported symptoms associated with mental health problems. Source: K. Levecque et al., Research Policy 46, 868, 2017.
Symptom Prevalence (%)
Felt under constant strain 41
Unhappy and depressed 30
Lost sleep over worry 28
Lost confidence in self 24
Felt worthless 16
Could not make decisions 15
Reported at least two symptoms 51
Reported at least four symptoms 32

My second attempt at promoting discussion of mental health took place at the 2016 American Physical Society (APS) Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWIP) at Georgia Tech. I chaired a session on dealing with depression and anxiety as a student. Naturally, I was very anxious going into the session. What if no one was interested? What if no one found it useful? To my surprise, the room was packed. The visiting chair of one of the 2017 conference sites attended and said she would incorporate such a session into future meetings. At least four CUWIPs this year have had sessions on mental health, and they have proved popular.

Most recently I had the opportunity to host an invited session at the APS 2017 March Meeting in New Orleans called “Stress & Strain: Mental Health and Graduate School.” I spoke to 40 or so physicists about the nitty-gritty details of dealing with my depression over the course of 10 years, including individual and group counseling, medications, suicidal thoughts, weight gain and loss, insomnia, and anxiety attacks. I was not quite sure how this would be received. It was the first time I ever said out loud to anyone who wasn’t a counselor that I had wanted to die.

What kept me going during the session was the nodding I saw from various audience members. We continued with talks by Kartik Kothari of the Yesplus group, which helps students de-stress; Angela Zalucha of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Working Group on Accessibility and Disability; and Simonetta Liuti, who mentors a student with autism. We concluded with a panel made up of our speakers and Rachael Mansbach, another graduate student who had been dealing with mental illness. The habits and experiences that the panel members talked about—hiding from emails, feeling so overwhelmed that they could only lie in bed all weekend—really resonated with me and with audience members.

Taking the next step

Afterward, many people came up to talk to me. They thanked me for the session and asked about what was next. Would we do another session next year? Could we form a group like the one at AAS? I took down names and contact information with hopes of doing something in the future. Many physics students are isolated in departments in which mental health discussion is taboo. For two and a half hours a small group of us had broken that taboo. But what could we do now?

To have more discussions, either on a department level or at conferences like the APS March Meeting, is definitely a start to removing stigma. The first major step is realizing you are not alone and getting help from those who have shared experiences. I always emphasize that it is okay to find a new therapist if you feel your current one is not supporting you in the way you need.

Beyond small discussions, we still need to figure out what we can do as a community to support physicists with mental health issues. We might start by emulating LGBT+ Physicists, which provides support and resources to LGBTQIA+ physical scientists. After creating a best-practices guide for physics departments, the organization formed the APS Ad Hoc Committee on LGBT Issues and compiled data for the 2016 LGBT Climate in Physics report.

Another priority must be educating faculty who encourage unhealthy work habits. I have been lucky to have an adviser who supports my attending weekly counseling sessions, but that is not the case for many others. Students have talked to me about how their advisers told them to stop going to counseling sessions and to be in the office from 9am to 8pm, regardless of health or mood.

Department leaders can also take a more proactive role. Georgia Tech physics graduate adviser Andrew Zangwill spoke to our class of first-year students about resources on campus, including the counseling center. The talk set the tone for students to feel supported and to know that, at least in one physics department, discussion of mental health was not taboo.

Andrea J. Welsh is a PhD student in biophysics and nonlinear dynamics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is currently an APS Forum on Graduate Student Affairs member-at-large and was the chair of the 2016 APS Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Georgia Tech. She welcomes emails from students who would like to start their own support groups.

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