On this year’s world mental health day, let us address the issue of anxiety and depression in academia. Just a simple google search on “depression in academia” will lead to several results, including from famous blogs and journals like Nature, Lindau Nobel Laureate meetings etc.
In many countries, including India, speaking about mental health issues is a big taboo. There is a lot of shame associated with it. As this article points out (https://thefemalescientist.com/guide/teresa-ambrosio/1836/the-side-effect-of-academic-life-how-to-deal-with-depression-and-anxiety/), even in Italy, the idea of counselling is associated to madness and psychosis.
Being aware and speaking about mental health is important. In academia, there are times when we lose our confidence, feel like an impostor in our research field (Impostor Syndrome), feel stressed etc. While many research groups and group leaders are friendly and comforting, there are also quite a few who could be actively putting immense pressure. Women also experience pressures from their biological clocks ticking away or have to make many sacrifices at the altar of science.
These and many more could be the causes of depression or anxiety. Here are a few thoughts and pointers on this issue.
- Many individuals don’t even recognize that they might be going through depression and for many Indians, it takes even longer to admit to themselves and others that they might be depressed.
- Even if an individual recognizes that they are going through depression, asking for help does not come easily. Often, people tend to shut themselves up, cut off communication and even if they gather up the courage to contact someone they feel close to, it often happens that the others might not be available and then it seems like just too much effort to try contacting someone to share their problems.
- Having a good support system can really help speed up the recovery process for individuals going through depression. It is therefore very important that the person going through depression has at least 2-4 confidants with whom they feel comfortable sharing their problems. Their confidants might be able to :
- Help them seek counselling/therapy, encourage to continue or change the therapist depending on how the person feels after therapy sessions (there are many bad therapists and we must be wary of them, but not forget that good therapists exist as well).
- Help deal with the family and at least try to make them understand what their family member might be needing at that moment ( Ex- making them understand why the person might be needing a break or need home care).
- Recognize that having the will to get better soon and working towards it is very important. Like any other problem, the solution to this requires effort.
- Taking medicines is not always bad and I have seen people get better with it (of course we should be careful of over-prescription of medication).
Mental health problems are as real an issue as physical health problems. We should not be ashamed of seeking help and be willing to help those who need it.
In fact, for many individuals, mental stress manifests itself in the form of physical health issues as well (think about how you feel slightly nauseous before a nervous situation like an interview etc). I went to a therapist to try figuring out if I could help one of my physical health problems by better managing stress. Just like we can visit a doctor when we see slight symptoms of a physical problem, we can visit a therapist even if we are not severely depressed (again: we must be wary of bad therapists).
So I kindly request you to be aware of this problem, try to educate yourself more about it (how you can help support someone) and create a safe space among your friend groups to openly discuss this. We may never know when someone is going through depression. There are often no visible signs of it.
While we must remember that we are not responsible for anyone’s actions, we can try to help how much ever we can. Incidents like suicide etc can occur despite all the help, but more awareness about mental health can definitely help prevent many severe cases of depression.
Here are the links to some articles on this issue : https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-04998-1, https://www.lindau-nobel.org/blog-mental-health-academia/