Mental health in academia

Who do people turn to when they need support?
15 December 2020

Interview with 

Elsa Loissel, eLife


mental health


An emerging trend in academic settings is mental health. Increasing numbers of researchers up and down the career ladder are disclosing mental health problems. This could be because the situation is worsening, or that the working environment is becoming more receptive and supportive in this area. But one thing not often discussed is the people to whom those who need support turn to. Who are the supporters? And who helps them? Is this an organised system, or an ad hoc one where people are taken under a sympathetic wing? Are these supporters properly equipped to guide their colleagues? And are their efforts recognised? The answers to all of these questions is “we don’t know”, so eLife’s Elsa Loissel decided to set up a survey to try to find out. In her words, she “humbly expected a handful of responses”. She got over two and a half thousand, as she told Chris Smith...

Elsa - We have increasing evidence that there is an issue with poor mental health in academic settings, and that supporting relationships are quite important. What we wanted to know, and what is less discussed, is what are the people who are supporting others feeling and what do they need

Chris - When you say we've got evidence that there is a problem, what is that evidence and how extensive is it? And is it getting worse or has it just always been there and people are getting better at talking about it?

Elsa - That's always the question. So there is a lot of sort of anecdotal evidence. There are more studies coming out showing that the rates of mental health issues within graduate students is higher than it is in the general population, or comparable groups in the general population. The amount of stress in staff is comparable to healthcare workers, for example. In terms of getting worse, there's a report that's been published, showing that staff are trying to access counseling services more and more. So in general, it sounds like there is a problem in academia with mental health.

Chris - So what did you actually do here in order to try to find out the extent of the problem and really what the problems are?

Elsa - So we collaborated with researchers to design a survey that would be a snapshot of who these supporters are, what they do, who do they support, how they feel, what do they need. I thought we would get a few hundred answers and we could write a nice little feature article about it. And in the end, we got nearly two thousand five hundred people who started the survey, and the final data set - that's about one thousand nine hundred people in total.

Chris - Of course, any kind of study has limitations, and when it's a self-selecting survey, there are also going to be biases because of who chooses to fill it in. So notwithstanding that, what do you think the strengths and weaknesses of what you've got here are?

Elsa - We have not captured the experiences of all supporters. We cannot say anything about, 'this happens at this rate in the community', or we cannot say anything about 'these people are more likely to be supporters and these people are less likely to be supporters' because it is a self-selecting survey. So the people that took it were people that understood the message, were interested in mental health, had experiences of being supporters that they felt strongly about reporting, strongly enough that they spent 15 minutes filling a survey about it. So this sample is not representative.

Chris - And what did they tell you? When you went through the responses? What were the key findings, the key trends that kept emerging again and again, and again?

Elsa - A lot of the support was taking place between peers or between a senior researcher that was not officially in charge of the junior researcher that they were helping. So it's a lot of potentially invisible work that is being done.

Chris - And that's obviously not being recognised. It's not being rewarded, I presume.

Elsa - No. And that's also one of the messages that really emerge. Many supporters need support themselves and they don't receive it from institutions. I think there is a quote that summarises it brilliantly. Someone that says "institutions love us supporting students, but they don't value it. They don't reward it. They don't take it in consideration when they look at workload models or promotion criteria".

Chris - What other important trends or findings emerge?

Elsa - Women emerged as a population that's faced quite a lot of additional challenges. So they were more likely than men to support more than one person at a time, to feel that more people are coming to them because they were supporters, to feel like being a supporter affected their work and left them stressed, took a lot of their time. Early career group leaders, also were a population that felt they needed support in their role and they felt that their work was affected by being a supporter. There was also a huge overlap between people who were struggling with their own mental health while they were having someone else. The majority of supporters also felt very positive about having helped someone. They found it meaningful, they felt that they made a difference in someone's life. And so I would hate to paint this as a burden or as a chore. This is something that people felt very strongly about doing, and they felt natural doing, and they felt distressed not being able to do it properly

Chris - And to finish. What do we do about this then?

Elsa - I think at the level of just the individual, I think for people who were supported, there was a very strong response from supporters saying that they believe that these people belonged in science, that they believed that they were good scientists regardless of their mental health. And so sort of reassurance that they are worthy of being there and of being helped. And I think for supporters, there was a sense of isolation coming from some of the open answers and feeling that there are others that are going through those potential difficulties of not knowing what to do, and sort of maybe open discussions within the lab saying "my students is having a, you know, not a great time, what do you think it should be doing?" At the higher level for institutions, to understand what is going on within the department. Then they can tailor solutions that would really help the people that are doing the work already. We need to understand those relationships better, and that's why we've made our datasets and our code available because we've barely scratched the surface here and there are people out there who could use this dataset and this code and build on it and explore it even further.


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