Mental Health in Academia: A Guilty Scientist

// Mental health is a topic that is pretty taboo in academia, sometimes (though not always!) spoken about only under the condition of anonymity. There is a mindset that pervades throughout academia: academic research is difficult. That’s just the way it is. And if you want to survive, you’ve just got to tough it out. While only a few official surveys have been done to study mental health issues among academics, there is some evidence suggesting that there needs to be a shift in the academic mindset. The best way that I can think of is to start by sharing stories. Real stories, published by real scientists, with real problems. I hope that sharing my own story will encourage others to share their stories, and a discussion (that will hopefully lead to change) can begin.

My Life as a Guilty Scientist

I’ve always been a “worrier.” I have begun to think that “I worry” is the defining statement of my personality. Some people are great speakers, some are great at sports or music. I’m great at worrying. It started small. I used to worry that my mom would come in after bedtime and catch me reading Shel Silverstein under the blankets. When high school started, I would worry about my grades. Would they be high enough that I could get into college? My dream college? Would I be smart enough to go to medical school, or law school, or graduate school, or wherever else I wanted to go?

My brother and I were raised by our single mom. A woman who taught us the value of hard work and respect. She’s still one of the hardest working and strongest ladies I know. I am proud of the work ethic that she instilled in me. The idea of taking pride in my work, in making sure that I am putting in my best effort in everything I do, that I am choosing to focus on things that bring me passion in my career are all things I got from her.

It was a long drive from SC to LA, so we made lots of stops. And silly photos.

These skills are ones that served me well when I moved to from South Carolina to Los Angeles to start pursuing my PhD in chemistry at UCLA. When I was doing my undergraduate studies at Furman University, I had my sights set on medical school. I wanted to specialize in pediatric cancer. I wanted to help children diagnosed with cancer and to help their families. It was during my studies that my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt so helpless. I knew what was happening from a medical or biological point of view, and I understood the treatment options, but they seemed to be barbaric: cut out the tumor using surgery (in her case a surgery called a lumpectomy), burn any remaining cancer cells using radiation therapy, or poison the cancer cells using chemotherapy.

There must be a better way. It was during that time that I decided to focus on research instead of going to medical school. I wanted to be on the cutting edge of research that was aimed at providing new and better treatment options for cancer patients. So I decided to pursue a PhD in chemistry instead of an MD, and I chose a research group that was working to develop nanoparticles as a better way to deliver chemotherapy to patients. It seemed like a perfect fit for my interests.

When I was in grad school I needed to wear a heart monitor for 24 hours, and a second monitor for 30 days.

Just before starting graduate school, I started having strange pains in my chest and a “weird” heartbeat. It felt like my heart was skipping a beat. My heart would race, and in the thud-thud-thudding, I would feel a pause that would make me cough, make me even more worried than normal, and in turn the thud-thud-nothing-thud would happen more. After doing a few stress tests with a sonogram of my heart (it was so cool! to watch the valves opening and closing in real-time), the cardiologist told me that I had a benign palpitation that was likely caused by stress.

As scary and embarrassing as it is to share this photo, it’s important.

Over-worked, over-stressed, I essentially stopped eating. This (horribly unhealthy) coping mechanism was one I used when I was going through a particularly difficult period of time at Furman. I avoided scales and mirrors, I shut myself up in my dorm room, and hoped that my roommates wouldn’t tell me I needed to eat or go to a doctor. At my lightest, I weighed 93 pounds (42.2 kg). I have a photo from a party I went to with my roommate around that time, and when I saw it printed I couldn’t even recognize myself. I finally realized I needed to get some help.

This is the photo of myself that I dislike the most. It’s so difficult and painful to see because it reminds me of this really difficult period in my life. Anorexia. Anxiety. Depression. These were the realities in my life, and I couldn’t handle them on my own. In recent years, when I can feel the depression and anxiety peering in, when I can feel a lack of desire to have breakfast (“I’ll just wait and have a big lunch”) or lunch (“Well I’m really busy with experiments, so I’ll just have a nice big dinner when I get home from the lab”) I secretly look at this photo as a reminder of a place where I never want to return, and use it as a way to encourage myself not to turn down that path.

During my PhD, the anxiety got worse. If I wasn’t the first one in the lab in the morning, and the last one to leave the lab at night, I felt guilty. If I started packing up my things to go home, I would feel the need to make a declaration. “Well I’m off to so-and-so’s birthday dinner!” or “I need to get to the health center for a physical therapy appointment.” or maybe “Does anyone want to join for the happy hour in (building other than ours)?” I could never just say, “Well I’m off!” I felt like I should be busy the whole day. I should start another experiment, I should plan the next day’s work, I should work a little on a paper, or my dissertation. There is always work to be done, and I should always be doing it. If I didn’t work just a little bit longer, or just a little bit later, I always felt guilty. This was doubly true for vacations, or trips home to visit my family, which became exercises in constantly checking emails and replying immediately to any and all lab-related matters.

Graduation marked an interesting time for me because I still wasn’t officially finished with my PhD.

It is surprising how long I was able to continue with 14–16 hour days during the week, 5–8 hours on the weekends. I tried to tell myself, “It’s just this period then you’ll be able to relax a bit.” Or, “Once you finish the experiments for this paper, you can take a break.” Even, “Once you start writing your dissertation maybe you can even spend a day a week writing from home.”

During my PhD, there were resources available for students on campus — therapy groups and individual therapy — through the UCLA Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Both were an important part of my graduate education to help ease my anxiety and depression, and as a way to keep my eating habits healthy (well, as healthy as a grad student’s diet of vending machine food, take-out, and free food after seminars can be). I managed to make it through my PhD, with the help of great friends, with the great staff at CAPS, and occasionally with some anti-anxiety medication to help in particularly difficult times.

The sunsets in Lausanne, at the Port of Ouchy, are spectacular.

After my PhD, I made a move halfway across the world to Lausanne, Switzerland. The distance in miles and time zones makes it difficult to stay in touch with those I once held dearest in my life. New jobs and new cities make it difficult to stay as connected as when you live 20 steps away from your best friends. The reality set in that it is no easier to deal with mental health issues in a foreign country where the language is not your native one. There are also not many services for postdocs at my institution here. We are distinct in our classification from enrolled students and do not qualify for many of the same services through the university, but I am making sure to seek out the help that I need on my own.

I wish that I had some magical, universal tips to help in any academic’s situation. For me, seeking out help when I needed it and having a group of wonderful friends to lean on has always been an important part for me. Feeling connected to something is also important to me, so making connections, establishing relationships is key to my anxiety management, as is finding new and fun ways to get out of the lab — biking around the town, trying out an Escape Room or a new pizza restaurant. Finding these ways to relax, and forcing myself to step away from the lab long enough to focus on those instead, give me the time to step away and re-charge. In essence, they have saved me.

// If you are struggling and need someone to speak to about your situation, reach out to your institution, or search for the number of a suicide prevention hotline near you (includes US states AND international numbers).

Originally published at on September 13, 2016.

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