Mental health in science

Are scientists suffering more mental illness?
20 December 2019

Interview with 

Liesl Krause, Purdue University


Mental health


eLife recently launched a new collection focusing on the question of mental illness. It’s curated by Elsa Loissel and it asks how can the scientific community support researchers with mental health issues. The problem appears to be worsening, but why? Speaking with Chris Smith, Liesl Krause is a graduate student at Purdue University; she’s been very active in this space; she volunteers with the initiative PhD Balance, and pursues research on relationships between supervisors and PhD students…

Liesl - I had some mental health struggles when I entered my Masters programme, and I saw that there were a lot of other graduate students out there who were struggling, and I thought, 'if there are other people out there struggling with this, and we don't really talk about it, there has to be some sort of research that we can use to show other academics this is important and something that we should be looking and talking more about.'

Chris - Do you think this is a phenomenon that's becoming more common; or do you think it's something that people are just feeling a bit more comfortable talking about: it's always been there but we're just talking about it more...?

Liesl - I think it's a bit of both. There's been a lot of great work to kind of do the hashtag and the stigma movement, which is where people post on social media about their own mental health struggles so that you understand that everyone has a mental health struggle: it's not just behind closed doors anymore, and you can still succeed with that. And then there is a lot more resources out there that allow people who might otherwise not have been able to enter graduate school due to their mental illnesses to now enter into those spaces. So I think it's a combination of the two.

Chris - And when you talk to people, what sorts of mental health issues are they having?

Liesl - Primarily in graduate schools, we see a lot of depression; we see a lot of anxiety. Those are the two most common

Chris - Are they more common in that particular group than if you say took age-matched individuals who are not at graduate school?

Liesl - There have been studies that have shown that graduate students actually experience mental illness at about twice the rate that the otherwise general public do. And that general populace that they're being compared to are people who have graduate degrees and college degrees. So it's something very specific about being in graduate school that kind of leads to these sorts of mental illnesses.

Chris - And what do you think is triggering that?

Liesl - I don't think that anyone truly knows the answer yet, but I do think that part of it is due to some of the academic culture. A lot of advisers and faculty say 'well, this is what I had to do when I was a graduate student. I made it through. So you should be able to do that too.' And they're not empathetic to the fact that some of their graduate students might be in different stages of life than them; they might have different physical and mental capabilities that have them working different hours; and they have other stressors in their life. Graduate school has become a little bit more stressful recently. There's a lot more issues surrounding stipends and how those stipends are actually able to be a livable wage. When you break it down to an hourly wage, we actually get paid less than minimum wage. The stipend hasn't really increased in several years. So you might be getting the same stipend that you were getting, you know, when your adviser was in graduate school.

Chris - And in your own studies, what are you actually doing, and what's actually emerging What are you finding?

Liesl - I use something called skin conductivity to look at emotions. So skin conductivity is, when you sweat on your hands, it raises the skin conductivity. And that's actually happening even as we're speaking right now, or if you're driving in your car, you're having minute changes. So what I do is I have two participants hooked up, and then I look at how often those skin conductivity peaks happen in correlation with each other. What we're anticipating - and what we're starting to see - is that, when you have emotional or empathetic spikes happening at the same time, there's a better mental wellness there in that partnership and the partners are closer. And so I think that empathy between advisers and advisees is something that's really important, because the better your relationship is the better you guys can kind of get along.

Chris - How do you know it's just empathy though? Because, for instance, if a supervisor and supervisee have a row, arguably the skin conductivity is going to go up because they're going to sweat. That wouldn't be necessarily a beneficial interaction. It could be quite an aggressive one.

Liesl - Oh it definitely could be. And that's something that I plan on looking at later on down the line. But it's when if, in that situation, the student was having some sort of major emotional response but the adviser was having no emotional response, it's not a great sign. That kind of tells you that something's wrong with that adviser.

Chris - Ah, so it's the reactivity and the responsiveness on the part of the adviser. It's the fact they're reactive to each other showing that there's a strong relationship. But if they sat there and stonewalled the student, that's arguably going to make the person feel worse not better?

Liesl - Exactly. And something that we do over at PhD Balance is we ask people to share their stories. And part of what we've been learning from people sharing their stories is that they feel isolated in their graduate programmes. Because it is a really isolating thing to be put in a situation where, you know, you're really stressed out and your adviser doesn't seem to care about it.

Chris - And what this is going to translate into is, you think, more 'teaching the teachers to teach' type courses more focused on these are the danger signs: This is what to look out for. This is how to be a good supervisor?

Liesl - Yeah. That's definitely where this is going. Is some sort of how to mentor how to teach. At Purdue, we're actually starting this programme where, in our faculty, members will be coming in and for the first year they won't be asked to teach any classes. Instead they'll be taught how to teach classes and we also are starting programmes where it's called 'First Aid for mental health'. So faculty will be able to have some quick tips in how to assess students right in their office rather than having to send them to our psychological services, which are overburdened.


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