Table from “Towards sustaining a culture of mental health and wellness for trainees in the biosciences” summarizing recent studies into graduate and postdoctoral mental health.
This is part of a series of blog posts explaining our push for centering mentoring in academia. We are organizing a meeting in Chicago in June 2019 to take action – you can learn more about the effort here.
The mental health of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and academics in general is a topic of great discussion but with relatively little data. A recent paper, “Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education” used a voluntary survey of graduate students to point to a high incidence of anxiety and depression, and while the paper has not gone without criticism (read here for example) it has more recently been supported by work on American Economics departments and has tapped into what is very clearly a very important topic for early career researchers: the high incidence of mental health issues, and lack of support to address them, in academia.
Mentoring is one factor in the mental health of academics. The relationships between mentors and mentees, or more accurately, between the principal investigator and those who work for them, can be critical in affecting mental health. In “Towards sustaining a culture of mental health and wellness for trainees in the biosciences“, Jessica Tsai and Fanuel Muindi summarize the recent data on mental health and point to the need for shared responsibility in addressing mental health issues, and also indicate a key part of the equation: that many postdocs and graduate students themselves are in positions of mentoring more junior lab members.
What are solutions to better support mental health in academia? When talking about mentoring, we often think of a Principal Investigator and their graduate student or postdoc as part of a mentoring dyad, but other mentoring relationships can be important in providing mental health support, and peer-to-peer mentoring networks such as the one at the Francis Crick Institute, which now has a group of mental health “first-aiders”, are a key example of the importance of creating a culture of mental health support such as Tsai and Muindi suggest.
Overall, poor mentoring and toxic relationships can obviously be a contributing factor to poor mental health, but an overall lack of attention to mentoring and support networks in general, combined with the power dynamics involved in academia, can lead to the situation that we seem to be experiencing now – a lack of data and awareness of a problem that clearly affects a large number of early career researchers. Centering mentoring in academia, and ensuring that mental health is an area to keep in mind with regards to mentoring, could be key to supporting a more productive environment. The focus in academia should be on maximizing the talents of the researchers involved, and not losing those who are experiencing toxic or unsupportive environments.