E: First of all, could you give a brief introduction to yourself, and what you currently do?
I’d like to stay anonymous to be able to speak completely freely without the fear of repercussions, so sorry to the reader, but this will have to be a bit vague. I am an early career scientist, you can either imagine me as a late stage PhD student or an early stage post-doc in microbiology or plant sciences. I am not originally from the UK, but rather came here for my PhD and am from a big family from a rural area of continental Europe.
E: In your area of academia, how would you describe people’s attitudes towards mental health- in general, and for men?
In my opinion there are two main different attitudes and everything in-between:
There is the official one, in which everyone’s mental health is important and held at a high priority.
And then there is the second one, where mental health is always secondary (or even lower in priority) to other things such a s research outputs, paper publications, general productivity, and how the rest of academia sees you. This one is connected with how one projects themselves into the rest of the academic world, and often does not allow for weaknesses to be shown out of fear that it will have negative consequences in the future, such as less success in career advancement.
I often find that the second attitude is a lot stronger in men. Often, they do even truly believe that the official version about caring about an individual’s mental health is important and good, while at the same time not allowing themselves to cut themselves some slack about their own mental health or others around them. I find that it is especially holding true if a man is in a position of power. The survivor’s bias can kick in and we/they start believing that if they made it so far, then everyone else who can’t make it without taking a dent in their mental health must be weak and potentially not worth their investment of time and resources.
This is a very dangerous way of viewing the world, as it still fits in well with the official guidelines, while at the same time accomplishing the polar opposite of what would be the most helpful.
E: Could you describe some of your experiences with mental health, and (if you have) how you approached seeking help or talking to other people about it?
Accepting the fact that I am not perfect and that it is impossible to achieve perfection academically was a big step for me. I often feel and felt like I have to be the best at everything, to work the most hours, the hardest, to achieve the most, in order to have a shot at a career in science. Anything less was unacceptable about myself. This notion can end up very damaging for oneself, and drove me into a greater and greater depressions, as it is impossible to fulfil those standards and I gave parts of myself up in the process.
I have since grown a lot on a personal level, but there are still times when I do have lingering doubts about myself because of these thoughts. I have started regular therapy sessions over the last years, and this has helped me a lot. Having a close group of friends in academia with whom I can openly talk about these things without the fear of negative consequences is also incredibly beneficial. It is often not easy opening up to someone about such feelings — but it is a lot easier if both people open up to each other.
I find that some people who have more power such as group leaders can be very understanding and helpful as well. While others are not and would much rather drop a metaphorical ‘hot potato’ than to try to help it ‘cool down’ themselves. There is a huge variety of people out there and not everyone has actually undergone a whole lot of personal growth during their careers.
E: What do you see as the biggest barriers towards men’s mental health (in particular) within academia?
There are a lot of barriers in working towards better mental health, and I do not want to say that men have it worse than women. But there are some barriers that have different ‘heights’ for different people. One of those barriers for a lot of men kind of functions like a mental trap in my imagination.
Often men, try to escape and not think self-critical thoughts as they feel that those thoughts would take away from the image that they are pre-destined by society to achieve. That of the strong man, the one who is always certain, who never stumbles, who achieves everything. I fear that a lot of men try to avoid thinking thoughts that would conflict with this image of themselves. However, over time this just makes it even more necessary to have self-critical thoughts, but they forbid themselves from ever thinking in this direction as it is seen as a weakness that can’t be allowed.
E: Do you have any advice to readers about ways to open conversations with friends/ family about the things that really matter?
I think we all (all of society) need to change our approach to mental health a bit. We all need to realise that it is okay to not always feel amazing, to not always be the best of the best, to not always have to put on a fake smile of happiness, if one is not feeling happy. It is totally okay and normal to struggle from time to time, and to not feel happy all the time. There are tough times in everyone’s lives, and we need to acknowledge that going through them is normal and talking about them in an honest way is good.
I think that is the only way to get out of this illusion that if you struggle you must be weak and ‘unworthy’. Everyone should try to lead as a good example in their lives for this. I personally find that people open up to me specifically because I do not try to hide my struggles all the time. They feel safe with me, as I am also struggling. I think we all need to do more to provide this type of safety and normality to everyone and that this helps enabling deeper conversations.
E: We are currently in a very weird time, how has Covid-19 affected you and your health?
- Have you been supported by your lab/ friends/family?
I am very lucky to work in a very supportive lab group. Where we truly support each other as a team, and also as friends. So, we have all been helping each other out as much as possible.
My family has tried to be supportive as well. Although the strain of not being able to go home and actually see and interact with them has been building up more and more. They also at times try to guilt trip me into giving up my dream of a scientific career in the UK. They do this out of love as they care for me and they would like to have me closer by them so that I could more actively be included in their love. So, I do forgive them for it, but it is sometimes very tricky to do.
- Have you found that actually, people are being more open?
I personally think that due to the pandemic everyone is experiencing a collective level of additional pandemic ‘stress’. And since we are all experiencing it, there is a lot less shame shrouding that topic, so people feel a bit freer to talk about it. However, I also think that this is very much limited to the general coping with the pandemic. I fear that a lot of pressure in academia has turned inwards, and that since there is not much else to do than work for a small subset of people, who do not have careering responsibilities, or children etc., the overall pressure to be productive has been raised even higher for everyone while at the same time being limited in resources such as time in the lab.
E: Men have voiced online that opening up about mental health struggles could potentially affect their career prospects in future academic roles- this may be due to male stereotypes, as this doesn’t seem as much as a concern for women? What do you think about this, and how do you think this could be changed?
I think there might be a real struggle for lots of people, independent of their gender or sex. There is a general fear of repercussions if one allows oneself to show their own struggles. These can too easily be interpreted as a weakness by the rest of the academic world, instead of what it really is: a strength.
I have personally been warned by my boss multiple times, that I should really not show too much or real struggles (e.g. on twitter), if I want to continue having a career in my field, as there are people in power who would see that as a disqualifying weakness in me.
I have no real solution to this, apart from the fact that I do hope that over time more and more people will come into ‘power’ who will actively challenge this view, and I want to do the same.
E: Do you have any resources that you have found particularly useful (blogs, books, podcasts ect)
I find that having a twitter account has opened me up a lot to the fact that struggling from time to time is normal, and that not being perfect is normal. That having a sense of humour is good, and that we are all not just supposed to be ‘well-oiled publication machines’. The sense of community there has really given me a lot of strength at times.
As a very reflective and very honest blog I’d like to recommend Ben Britton’s blog: https://bmatb.medium.com/ (and also his twitter account: @BMatB)
There are many more twitter accounts that are worth following! Such as: @GilesPalaeoLab, @i_jayas, @seis_matters, @Prokaryota – and so many more. And I can only recommend everyone to do so, even if one does not want to write a single twitter post themselves or even want to stay completely anonymous on that platform. That is okay!
Personally, I would recommend EVERY scientist to read the book ‘Momo’ (also known as ‘The Grey Gentlemen’ or ‘The Men in Grey’) by Michael Ende. It is not a science book, but it talks about the pressures of time and what is important in our interactions with each other as humans. It is written as a children’s book, but at the same time it is also for adults. And it is incredibly applicable to academic culture.