In yesterday’s issue of Nature an article titled “Why mental health matters” was published. This article included commentary by qBionano’s Mattias. Here he extends on his comments and provides additional context and broader discussion on this important topic.
A month and a half ago I attended an event in Parliament, where one of the topics was mental health and well-being of early-career researchers. Shortly after that I was contacted by Nature’s Chris Woolston who was preparing an article on this topic, and we had a Skype interview.
We talked for about half an hour and he was clear that the final comments that would be published would only be a small part of what we had discussed, in the interest of brevity and due to space constraints of the printed journal. So to complement the printed “snapshot”, here I hope to provide some additional perspective on this important topic.
First off, I consider myself lucky. I have had some heartfelt conversations throughout the years with close friends and colleagues around the world who have really struggled with mental health and well-being during their research careers (including PhD students, postdocs, and more senior colleagues) due to a variety of reasons.
My personal experience—in Sweden, Australia, and the UK—has been largely good. There have been times times of doubt: “What am I doing? Is this right for me? Do I really belong here?” (for those of you who recognize the insidious beast that is impostor syndrome, there are good ways towards addressing it and coping with it). But I have been fortunate to work with amazing friends, colleagues and PIs throughout my career that have supported me throughout the good and the bad.
As I have been relatively fortunate in my experiences, I sometimes get the question why I am interested in this complex issue. To me it is similar to the topic of equal opportunity.
As a guy from Northern Europe much of the most prevalent discrimination (e.g. against women or against minorities) often does not directly affect me. But even though I am often spared personally, I am a strong believer in equal opportunity and I like to think that I do my best to help promote and advance this cause whenever I can.
To me it is similar with mental health and well-being. This is an issue that affects us all—directly, indirectly or both—as it is a source of suffering and a waste of both talent and resources. As such, it is in all of our interests (both individually and collectively) to help improve in whatever way we can.
Mental health problems are common
If you are reading this then you are probably already aware, but let me state it again. Mental health issues are very common.
I have recently written a blog post on this topic and there are some excellent reports and references linked in there for those that want to know more. In addition to the links in there which largely focuses on researchers, CIPD has a good report that provides a perspective of the broader workforce in the UK. Headline findings from these reports include:
- 1 in 3 people will experience a mental health problem in any given year
- We probably all work with someone experiencing a mental health problem
- 9 out of 10 people with mental health problems experience stigma and discrimination
Hard work does not equal suffering
A notion I want to address head on, that I still hear too frequently in science in general (never would be the right frequency) is that research should be hard and include some suffering, with the clear connotation that people who can’t handle suffering are not ‘cut out’ for research. I strongly disagree.
Research (be it as a grad student or afterwards) is not easy. By definition we are trying to understand things or solve problems that no one has done before. Although it’s often easy to forget when absorbed in our day-to-day work which might feel less than glamorous (“why is this tube leaking today, it wasn’t leaking yesterday?”), as a community we are at the edge of human knowledge, trying to push it forward.
All well-designed projects, whether they “work” or not, help with this (and the results should ideally be disseminated to help rid the world of the scourge that is “dark data“, but that is another topic).
In a well-functioning research environment, not getting an experiment to “work” should not feel like a personal failure.
In an ideal research environment, optimism and a sense of belonging is treasured and nurtured, and fueled by inclusive collaboration, vigorous debate, and broad contributions. At it’s best, research is about together tackling challenging topics and problems that we are passionate about.
Doing things that have never been done before is challenging. It is hard. But intense and hard work should not—and doesn’t have to—equal suffering.
How do we improve the situation?
This is the key question. First and foremost, more resources and studies are needed on this topic. This is something we have recently argued should be a key priority for the next European research funding programme (the upcoming Horizon Europe).
The limited evidence that exist on this topic, shows that a positive and supportive research environment is fundamental.
What can you do as a prospective PhD student?
So what this means if you are a prospective PhD student (or considering a postdoc or another career move) is that you should try to work out what the environment is like in the potential places you want to go to. Perhaps this sounds easier said than done.
In my own experience, I talked to previous and current group members in the research groups I was interested in joining. This is something that I strongly encourage as that is how I came across the amazing people I have had the pleasure to work with in my career.
If you manage to have an open and honest conversation with a few members and alumni from a research group then that is invaluable for figuring out if the team, the PI, the department and the institution fits you.
It’s easy to get starstruck if you are in contact with a big shot PI in your field. But remember that this is due diligence for your well-being. If you are going to spend years in a research environment, a good place with good people that work well for you is crucial for your general well-being, as well as for your personal development and productiveness.
What can we do when we are already in a group?
The research groups I have been in—and am currently in—have had great team members and team ethos. People that are supportive and generous with their time and effort.
Even from early on in my career I had some great mentors that really took to heart the concept of paying-it-forward. As a junior member of the team, I could never “repay” a senior member taking the time to show me a new procedure or discuss ideas with me.
All they asked was for me to pay it forward when new team members joined and as I progressed in my career. These are words I still try to live by, many years later. To me they embodied the concept of be the change you want to see.
While institutions, funders, publishers etc. all play vital parts towards improving mental health and well-being, the support network that all of us can help build and be part of should not be underestimated.
I also want to take this opportunity to highlight some exciting developments in this area. In the policy sphere, groups such as the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA), the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers (Eurodoc), and Vitae are doing excellent work. For example, recently published policy papers (MCAA, Eurodoc) highlight the importance of this issue and provide recommendations to help address it from a larger-scale perspective.
The Royal Society is also showing leadership on this topic with their ongoing project on research culture, and I warmly recommend their recent report “Research culture: Embedding inclusive excellence”.
On an institutional level there are multiple great initiatives. In my own institution, I am proud to see leadership with the formation of both formal and informal support networks and guidelines (including specific initiatives aimed towards PhD students, supervisors, staff and line managers).
One excellent example is mental health first aiders whose purpose is to provide first-line support by providing a safe space to start a confidential conversation about mental health and signpost people to the most appropriate support. Another great example is what is called the Postdoc and Fellows Development Centre which provides tailored support for early-career researchers.
These examples only provide a snapshot of the intense activity that is—encouragingly—ongoing in this space. If you have any more examples then please feel free to contact me as I would be very happy to know more!
For all of you that are passionate about this topic, I strongly encourage you to look into possibilities to become involved. Eurodoc, MCAA, Euroscience, Royal Society of Chemistry, Royal Society of Biology, and The Royal Society are just a few examples of groups working with researchers on this topic. There are many similar organizations that act both locally and globally.
My suggestion, if you are new to this type of involvement, is to start with a group that is active locally and close to your institution. For example many institutions and universities have student unions and similar professional bodies that can be an excellent option.
There are mental health issues in research. But it is (slowly) getting better as passionate people and organizations are pushing this topic and helping to raise awareness and in the development of solutions.
It is also a very complex issue, and part of the solution will require addressing structural issues in the research system and culture (as I highlighted in the Nature article)—and cultural changes are never easy.
I hope that this ongoing conversation is not swaying people from considering a career in research. Despite all its faults and flaws, I still love research and its people.
- Great piece in this week’s Nature by Prof Dave Reay: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05080-6
- Nature has created a “Science careers and mental health” collection, available here: https://www.nature.com/collections/gnlwffjgtr/
- Article on “Early-career researchers and mental health” by Eurodoc’s Gareth O’Neill and Mathias Schroijen in Impact, Volume 2018, March 2018, p. 91-92. DOI | PDF
- Nature has created a “How to grow a healthy lab” collection, available here: https://www.nature.com/collections/labhealth
- Vitae, “Exploring wellbeing and mental health and associated support services for postgraduate researchers”: https://re.ukri.org/documents/2018/mental-health-report/
- Universities UK, “#stepchange Mental Health in Higher Education”: https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/stepchange
- Craig Thorley, IPPR, “Not by degrees: Improving student mental health in the UK’s universities”: https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/not-by-degrees
- The Guardian, “Student mental health must be top priority – universities minister”:
Here are some ongoing initiatives towards understanding good practice in researcher mental health
- Student Minds, The University Mental Health Charter, http://www.studentminds.org.uk/charter.html
- Nature, Science careers and mental health, https://www.nature.com/collections/gnlwffjgtr/
- Nature, How to grow a healthy lab, https://www.nature.com/collections/pmlcrkkyyq
- University of York, Student Mental Ill-health Task Group, https://www.york.ac.uk/students/news/2016/mental-health-task-group/
- Universities UK, #stepchange, https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/stepchange