A Voice for Mental Health in Academia

One Jefferson student takes to social media and blogging to discuss mental health issues in graduate school, and finds huge community support.

So pervasive is the image of a graduate student toiling away for endless hours in the lab, frantically trying to crack the latest scientific conundrum. How did we get there? The pressure to publish research articles, scarcity of funding and competition for fewer job openings have created a massive shift in what is expected for a successful graduate school career. These systemic problems have made academia a breeding ground for poor mental health.

A study published in Nature Biotechnology in 2018 surveyed PhD candidates in life sciences and engineering across the world and found that over 40% of respondents showed moderate to severe anxiety and 39% moderate to severe depression. Both of these numbers are more than six times the prevalence in the general population.

With the mental health crisis in academia gaining more attention, students are taking on the roles of advocates to change the culture of academia and urging institutions to act. Lauren Langbein, a PhD candidate in Cell Biology at Thomas Jefferson University, is one such student paving the path forward for mental health advocacy by sharing her own experiences and creating space on social media for others to do the same.

We asked Langbein about her experiences dealing with mental health challenges in graduate school and using social media to find community and open dialogue.

Why do you think poor mental health is so prevalent in academia?

So much of what we do in graduate school is failing – experiments don’t work, papers are rejected, hypotheses are proven wrong. No one is really giving you positive feedback. You end up doubting yourself, feeling like the amount of work you put in is never enough. That can be extremely disheartening, and it’s easy to internalize that failure when you don’t have a lot of checkpoints along the way. That’s why imposter syndrome is so common among graduate students. Even though so many people are struggling, there isn’t a dialogue about it because everyone tends to get siloed in their labs and projects. So that’s just the attitude in academia, that struggling is the norm and you just have to deal with it. That approach is made worse by the systemic issue of lack of awareness and training among principal investigators. They aren’t trained to recognize if somebody is in crisis and how to deal with that, or how to manage people of different backgrounds, life experiences and mental health states.

How has your mental health been affected in academia, and what support have you found?

I was always anxious, especially in social situations. In my third year of graduate school, I was switching between projects, I wasn’t getting any results, and I was feeling isolated. All of that snowballed and I started having panic attacks. I knew something wasn’t right and I saw a therapist. I was diagnosed with anxiety and obsessive compulsive personality disorder. Sometimes I wonder whether I would have started having panic attacks if I wasn’t in grad school. When I first started experiencing them, I was deeply, deeply embarrassed. I thought it meant that I didn’t belong here, that I wasn’t able to manage the stress that other students felt too. I didn’t know who to go to for help. I would talk to other people in the lab, but we mostly talked about our projects and not really how we were feeling. I knew there was a student counseling center, but I didn’t know how to get there. I felt like my problems weren’t big enough to go there. I didn’t know what other campus resources I had access to. In a large way, that’s why I turned to the internet. I started getting more active on social media and I found all these other people with similar issues and talking about it openly. I realized I wasn’t alone.

Tips from Lauren on how to build self-care into your daily routine.

Tips from Lauren on how to build self-care into your daily routine.

Why did you decide to share your story through blogging and social media?

I wanted to start a blog for a while, but I didn’t know what to write about. When that paper came out showing that 40% of grad students suffer from mental health problems, it felt more and more important for me to talk about my experience and to help normalize other peoples’ experiences, and validate them. You don’t have to be this perfect version of a student. Nobody’s life is all positive, and we can talk about the negatives, because that’s what it is to be a human. I also wanted to break down the stigma of seeking help for mental health. Going to therapy is part of taking care of yourself, just like going to the doctor for a physical illness. We’re all on a spectrum of different amounts of physical and mental wellness. I want to talk about those things if it will help other people get the help they need.

What has your experience been sharing your story and how has it impacted your life as a graduate student?

Honestly, I’m so glad that I’ve done this. I was nervous about starting the blog and sharing this side of me. I was worried about what it would mean for me professionally, if people would treat me differently. But the responses I’ve received have been very positive. I’ve found a community of people who are so willing to share their stories, and through social media, I’ve been able to be part of larger initiatives. For example, I was invited to be part of a panel on mental health at ComSciCon, a conference organized by and for graduate students. It was such an amazing experience to meet other advocates and have an open dialogue.

I started getting more active on social media and I found all these other people with similar issues and talking about it openly. I realized I wasn’t alone.

I personally like being able to serve as a resource for people. Other graduate students at Jefferson have opened up about their experiences, they’ve shared how a post I’ve written has helped them. It’s certainly made me feel less isolated. Opening up about my experiences has empowered me to be more authentic and feel comfortable with the fact that I have a mental illness. It doesn’t have to be a secret, and I don’t have to be ashamed of it. It’s something I live with and manage. Getting that validation from others has also encouraged me to check in with myself more, and set boundaries and priorities.

There’s obviously still a stigma with talking about mental health. I do worry about being discriminated against in the future, or not being able to change people’s opinions. It’s hard to convince others that there’s no quick fix to mental illness, and that it can be lifelong.

How do you think social media can facilitate the conversation about mental health in academia?

I think it’s a great platform to bring up issues and get so many different perspectives and tips on how to address a problem, even if it’s as simple as “What do you do when you’re having an off day in the lab?” I also think blogging and social media are great tools to show different sides of yourself, not just the scientist. I think that’s so important in shifting the attitude towards mental health in academia, and reiterating that our projects are just one part of our lives. I hope that as more and more people get on social media, especially PIs, the image of PhD students as the lab rats who are working all day and all night will change.

Mental health advocates on social media

The community of researchers like Lauren who are advocating for mental health on social media.

How do you practice self-care in grad school?

I’m big on journaling, meditation, exercise, baking and of course therapy. I’m also in a dance club on campus, and have been dancing for 21 years, so that’s been an important creative hobby and helps release stress. I made a list of ideas for self-care in my day planner and I’ve been intentional about scheduling time for myself, even if it’s just having a cup of tea. Or going outside and getting some sunshine. I actually just wrote a blog post about how to build self-care into your day in the lab. I know it’s not something that comes automatically to grad students, so it’s good to have ideas and reminders.

Are you looking for mental health support? There are many resources available to Jefferson students, post-docs, and faculty:

Upcoming events from SPCC:

  • Positive Attitude Month
  • National Depression Screening Day, October 10th
  • National Coming Out Day, October 11th
  • Workshop on Imposter Syndrome, October 17thRSVP here
  • Creative Approaches to Self-Care, October 21st, RSVP here
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Health, Life at Jefferson, Science and Technology