December 5, 2023
Patty and Sinjini discuss mental health in the geosciences, share findings from a recent conference on the topic, and provide mental health resources for students at the Jackson School.
Warning: This post discusses sensitive topics that may be triggering for some individuals. If you or someone you know are thinking about suicide, please know that you are not alone, and contact the National Suicide and Crisis Hotline by calling or texting 988. Please visit: https://988lifeline.org for additional resources.
According to a 2023 Gallup Poll on the State of Higher Education, 71% of students struggle with stress, depression, and anxiety. If you’re a student reading this, you might not be surprised by this statistic and it may be part of your lived experience. Especially if you supervise students, you need to be aware of this statistic in the context of your students, colleagues, and peers. According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 1 in 5 Americans have experienced a mental health issue in the last year and less than half of them will seek treatment; mental health is a widespread issue that affects more than students.
Although mental health is a global issue, academia in particular has a problem with mental health (Johnson & Lester, 2022). By ignoring it or pretending it’s not a problem, we help uphold systems and structures that not only make it difficult to address mental health issues but may also unintentionally (perhaps due to lack of awareness) promote toxic work environments that make it impossible for people to thrive. This is especially true for people from marginalized communities and identities, and a big reason why diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts can fail to generate the positive and diverse environments needed for scientific research to flourish.
In recognition of the mental health struggles of the geoscience community, this year the Geological Society of America (GSA) Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, PA, on 15-18 Oct 2023, convened a Pardee Symposium on Mental Health. This session was recorded, and all talks are available online (with GSA login). Following the annual meeting, conference attendees, including the authors of this post, participated in a workshop on Positive Mental Health in the Geosciences. This workshop was convened by Jennifer Nocerino from GSA, Amy Myrbo who is an external evaluator from Amiable Consulting, and Cailin Huyck Orr and Rory McFadden both from the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College.
The stated goal of the workshop was to gather information about existing challenges to mental health at different institutions and organizations, as well as how and to what extent these challenges are being addressed. In particular, the workshop aimed to determine what GSA could do to address issues concerning mental health for geoscientists. The workshop discussions generated some resources and positive mental health strategies for the geoscience community as a whole.
Some Pardee Symposium speakers participated in the breakout group discussions, including mental health professionals and geoscientists working towards ways to improve mental health at their institutions. Each breakout room focused on a specific topic or prevailing concern:
One of the major themes of the discussions was reducing stigma around mental health issues and raising awareness of the compounding issues that result from systemic biases against individuals based on their race, ethnicity, nationality, gender identity, disability (visible and hidden), religion, and neurodivergence.
While structural issues can be more difficult to dismantle, especially at the individual level, we as a community can work together to reduce the stigma around mental health through conversations. In fact, research has shown that familiarity with mental health struggles can actually reduce public stigma (Corrigan and Niewelowski, 2019). Our goal with this blog post is to contribute to the conversation about how we can work together to reduce common stressors within academia and minimize the stigma of seeking help, focusing on key takeaways and lessons that were discussed at the workshop. Many of these issues are common across multiple institutions, demonstrating that this is not an isolated issue but something that all geoscientists encounter.
As members of academia, we may have common stressors that can lead to mental health issues, but it’s important to remember that we come from different backgrounds and life experiences that can contribute to our individual stressors. As a community we need to take a culturally humble approach to understanding what may be adding to academic stress and how we can work together to reduce those stressors and improve our mental wellbeing. Many of the academic stressors brought up in workshop discussion groups centered around:
The last Graduate Student Executive Committee Survey reported that 39% of Jackson School graduate students considered quitting their PhD with the top drivers being financial and health and personal reasons (45.7%). While the median graduate student happiness level was a 7 (10 being the happiest), many respondents to the survey indicated they have mental health issues and 44% have sought professional help. Despite the clear need for access to mental health care (67.5% reported they see a professional therapist), barriers to affordable care continue to be a problem at the Jackson School and broadly within academia.
How do we address these issues? We obviously cannot provide a comprehensive “how to” on dismantling structural obstacles to positive mental health in the geosciences, but we can continue the conversation about how to make the Jackson School a welcoming and inclusive community. We can start by talking to each other about our struggles, and approaching these very vulnerable conversations with the empathy we would expect if we were the one being vulnerable. Check in with people regularly and with genuine concern. Don’t be afraid to talk about your own struggles, and don’t shy away from someone choosing to be vulnerable with you. Everyone’s battle is uniquely valid.
If you feel like you aren’t equipped to deal with someone’s mental health struggles, that’s probably because you aren’t trained to. We acknowledge that we are not trained psychologists or therapists and we’re not advocating that advisors and faculty become psychologists for their students. However, an empathetic community starts with listening to one another, and directing people to the trained professionals and resources that will help them build healthy lives.
Advisors should be mindful of the fact that even if their students don’t discuss their mental health issues with them, that doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing them. It is possible that the student doesn’t feel comfortable discussing it or they could feel like their needs will be dismissed. It is the responsibility of the advisor to set a positive example by building an inclusive, supportive lab group that is both open and provides access to resources for students. It is also the responsibility of mentors and leaders to take care of themselves. Your mental health is just as important, and you cannot be expected to care for others when you are struggling yourself. Not only will this improve the wellbeing of students within the Jackson School, but it will also help build an inclusive and empathetic community that benefits all faculty and research staff.
While the stigma around mental health continues, mental health awareness is increasing in academia and at UT (see the recent visit from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy about loneliness and mental health), and UT recently made the Thrive app available for free to students to help them navigate the stress of higher education. These are promising and positive steps toward building a healthy community and demonstrate that the work continues, and it starts with us.
We would like to close with a list of resources from both UT and that we learned about at the Positive Mental Health in the Geosciences Workshop, and we hope that we can all work together to improve the mental health of our community. Be kind to each other.