Mental Health in Academia: “I'm sure that sometimes I miss the signs”

A lab manager discusses how to support lab members, especially during fieldwork.

This interview is part of a collection on Mental Health in Academia; excerpts of this conversation appear in an article about support people provide to researchers who experience difficult times.

Image credit: Public domain (Pixabay)

You’ve been in academia, in various positions, for a long time now. How do you feel your field has changed regarding mental health issues?

I am definitely seeing a change in a good direction. People are finally starting to talk about it openly and making it a bigger issue. I see people in higher positions who think about it more. But I don't think academics are trained yet to react accordingly or properly. It's just too new. If I put a timestamp on it, I would say things have started to change in the last year, but a year is nothing. It doesn't give time for people to learn and actually address other causes. Because in academia, there isn’t time for anything. People are standing in a line outside the professor's office to have like a minute of their time. If they are struggling with depression or other issues, they need a bit more than a minute in a corridor. There needs to be time and space for this.

How do you think academia fosters mental health issues?

It’s a very competitive field that attracts narcissistic people, but also people who have a lot of love and compassion. There can be a lot of dissonance between those two character types and that can lead to a lot of issues. Then of course, there's also the workload and the pressure to succeed. And so much of what you do is for free: at the beginning it’s internships and volunteering, then reviews, editing, book chapters, funding work, so much mental and physical work. So people never think what they do and what they know is enough, and it takes over their life. When you’re in the field, it’s even more dramatic: there is no life, there is just fieldwork. I think mental health issues progress much faster and lead to problems quicker in the field because people can’t go home, have weekends or a social life.

How do you support people in this environment?

When I see signs that someone’s struggling, one of the first things I do, even without talking to them, is to try to make more time and to help more to take some of the pressure off. In the field, I would usually also tell them: “Today, I want you to take a day off. Sleep in, do whatever you want to do, but just don't work.” It's hard because people are really fighting you on this, so sometimes I have to get quite rigorous. There is so much pressure on those people, so much pressure from themselves but also from others, and they feel they have failed if you tell them they can’t work because they are worn out. They feel so alone, and stupid, and embarrassed. I always try to explain that it's okay to not be okay, that it's the same for a lot of people. I tell them about issues I’ve had, how I struggled, how I sometimes need help and time off. Just to give them an idea that it's okay to say these things. So when they get to the point when they can’t go on anymore, they can say.

How did you become good at spotting people who struggle?

I think it has a lot to do with empathy. Once you know someone, you can really get a feeling for who they are, and you feel when their behaviors are different. Maybe it's because I'm a behavioral biologist who works with animals. I pay attention to the body language, the normal rate of behavior, how things are changing. Also, I have been there myself, so I have an idea of what the signs are. I think I learned a lot along the way, and definitely improved my spotting skills through trial and error. But I'm sure that sometimes I miss the signs. Some people hide it better than others.

Do you have other strategies to help them?

I try to be the person “in-between”. Sometimes communication gets difficult between students in the field and supervisors back at the university. So I try to be the one writing the emails and taking the pressure away from the students. I act a bit as a barrier, and if something is clashing, it's clashing on me and not on them. I am the manager here; I can deal with conflict. I don't mind if a person is having a problem with me for a couple of weeks because I've said something that they don't like hearing, but for the students, sometimes it's hard because they can't lose face in front of their supervisors.

Is your supporting role part of your job description?

At the start, this supporting role was not something that was actually given to me, or even discussed and highlighted as important. Nobody ever told me to give people time off when they feel burned out: I just realized it needed to happen, because I don't like seeing people suffer and otherwise they get lost along the way. The recognition and positive feedback from the actual people I’m supporting, that’s helpful and also the thing that counts for me, honestly. I don't really care if the University professor who pays me is aware of it. But this year, I can definitely say this was part of my role. When people in charge started to have students who had mental health issues while at the university, I saw a change in their priorities. Now, they have started to explicitly say that students staying healthy mentally and physically are the most important things, and they offer a lot of support for that to happen. It makes a difference to be talking about it openly, to know where these people are standing.

It sounds like you've been giving support almost without realizing you were?

I guess; a lot of times these things just happened without me even thinking that I was helping someone, because it's probably just one of my personality traits. I’ve become more aware of it only in the past few years, when I realized that it had been helpful to people. Now I'm doing it consciously, and it's also become a work thing. I’m not helping just because I want people to feel good: this is an issue and it needs to be addressed, and there are things I can do for that. When I’m doing things intentionally, I can also take better care of my own mental health.

This supporting role, in particular when you act as a buffer to defuse conflicts: does it take a toll on you?

Yes, of course, it's affecting me because I'm a human being. I'm an emotional person so I can feel those things and they hurt sometimes. But I definitely improved how I deal with them over the years. I took conflict-resolution workshop at the University, and we were taught how to de-escalate situations. Also, I went to therapy myself, just because I realized I sometimes didn’t know how to deal with things anymore, in my private or work life. It definitely helped me over the years to get better at supporting people, and also to deal with things so they are not affecting me too much. If someone is unhappy with something I did in my work life, it does not make me a bad person. I know where my work life ends, and my personal life starts. I also make sure that I get rested, that I can turn off my mind and not think about work all the time.


Exactly. And also, when I’m in the field, actively telling others: “Guys I'm recharging now, I'm not available, my door is closed, please just give me some hours.” So people know you’re tired, and they don’t wonder if they’ve done something wrong. Open communication is key, especially in the field. It does not always have to be mental health either, it can also be physical. A great example is when women get their periods, they should be able to say “Sorry guys, I'm getting my period tomorrow and might need a bit of time off then”; then people know what's going on and they can react to it accordingly.

Your role as a manager is not primarily research-focused: do you think it changes how people approach you for help?

I think they probably realize very early on that different things are important to me compared to their professor. I love research, and I love science, but for me, it's about having happy research animals. My first thought is about welfare, and maybe students feel it applies to them as well. I'm also not a competition to anyone. I like having publications, especially good ones, but I'm not a paper chaser, I’m not another PhD student who's competing for supervisor’s time or a paper in a high-impact journal. I'm outside of this whole system, and perhaps that's also something that makes a difference.

Does it make a difference when you come to supervisors?

When supervisors hear that there is a problem, they are helpful. But they have to hear about it and I think sometimes it helps if I'm the one telling them: “This person needs time out.” Maybe it's taken more seriously than if it comes from the students. And the students themselves, sometimes they don't know what to say, and how to say it, because they feel they are losing face asking for a bit of help or time off.

Do you feel like everybody should take on supporting roles?

Not everyone who's working as a manager has the feeling for supporting people, but I think it’s so important that everyone is aware of mental health problems. One person does not have to carry all the responsibility. It's everybody doing a little bit of work, and then there are professionals who are trained for the real job. Because I can only give help to a certain extent: I'm not the one who can sit down and give therapy sessions.

Do you find it positive to support people?

Absolutely; I just like seeing that people open up and talk to you. That is something which I find very rewarding, because I feel I'm on the right path, that I'm doing the right thing. It always helps me to develop myself a lot as well. But I also I don't feel like it is taking over all of my time: it's not like 90% of the time is spent on taking care of mental health issues. Support happens along the way, little things, nothing big, nothing that drains me or takes away time from all the other things I have to do. It's just something that comes along with the job, and I feel like maybe this should also be the same for everybody else.

Do you know someone in academia who struggles with their mental health? Have you provided support to somebody? We are interested in hearing about your experiences so we can understand how to better help supporters.

Interview conducted by Elsa Loissel, Associate Features Editor, eLife.