Hello and welcome to the latest YSSC newsletter article. This time we will be taking another short dive into a huge field, just to get your thoughts rolling and your senses primed for the topic. As neurochemists, we look at how the brain works on many different levels. Small molecules and drugs are part of our daily life and most of us are trying to deduce how certain molecules control health and disease states in animals, cells or both. Some of us might directly look at how molecules such as serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline or cortisol affect how we feel. However, for most of us, it would feel much more comfortable if the rest of this article would be discussing the pathways and circuits that this research has uncovered over the last few decades. Sorry people, but that is what research papers are for.
Looking at yourself and your community and taking the focus away from what you study can sometimes be hard and uncomfortable, especially when it is about how you feel, about your mental health. This is not meant to say that all of us struggle with mental health problems. However, just because you are not fighting with it yourself, it does not mean you can just ignore it exists. According to an online blog article published by the Harvard Graduate School for Arts and Science, graduate students are six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the general population, with another 10% increase in recent times attributed to the pandemic1. The shocking part about this is: Are you surprised to read it? No, right? That’s part of the problem. We can all guess some reasons for this, we might even be aware of them, but it is still hard to break the everyday patterns and actively work against this trend.
The blog continues by saying that more than a third of the graduate students have called for help with mental health problems and you don’t need to be an expert to know that this might be the tip of an iceberg. It takes a lot of courage, effort and often support and the gentle push of friends and family to look for help as it requires to accept that you have a problem. Most people are very good at ignoring mental health issues, blaming it on being just tired, busy, it’s all just a bit stressful it will go away. In some cases it will, in others it can manifest itself as an immediate and concrete threat. Depression and anxiety are diseases and whilst they are not as obvious as a cough or a broken leg, they are also much harder to diagnose and treat. Luckily a number of universities have picked up on the increasing numbers of mental health problems amongst scientists and graduate students and offer at least some sort of basic support. Again, it’s great that there are more options now than maybe 10 years ago, but in order to seek help you probably have quite a difficult time behind you already. Still, there are institutions in some parts of the world that need to immediately give some attention to this very important health problem.
So why is it that people working in STEM particularly at the start of their career are more prone to depression? As stated above we will all be able to guess. The list of factors is long, complex, intertwined and in some cases dependent on local or large scale circumstances. It sounds too easy to just “blame the system of science” and whilst this covers quite a few of the factors contributing to mental health issues (pressure for funding, short contracts, career instability, pressure to publish, difficult relationships and dependencies to supervisors and funders), that’s not all. What can we do? Again, there are multiple dimensions to it. We, as the scientific community, can be aware of the science, inform ourselves about it and look out for each other. We can develop more support programs and ways to make it easier for those of us who have been struggling to come back to the bench. We, as lab members, colleagues, supervisors, can basically do the same, just on a more direct scale. Scientists (at all levels) are notoriously bad for not taking their holidays, working after hours, working on weekends. Yes, sometimes that is important for the project. However, if you are fighting with anxiety because you have not had a single day off in the last three months, that won’t help the project either. Something “simple” like actually listening to your students/colleagues, encouraging them to take a holiday and reassuring them that the work will still be there afterwards can be very helpful. Social events (where possible) or just going for a walk after work can help to bring some positivity in someone’s life, particularly for those of us who live alone or cannot visit our families due to CoVid.
So, look out for each other and not just at those tiny molecules!
1https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2021/the-mental-health-crisis-in-science/, 24/06/21, 11:10 am BST