SciPolBites is a series of reflections from NSPN members about current issues in science and policy. In this SciPolBite, published in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, three members share their perspectives on policies relating to mental health in academia, from the science of mental health to how we can advocate for mental health in our research labs and institutions.

Rachel Gilfarb (@RGilfarb)

Mental Health: A Neuroscience Perspective

The condition of United States citizens’ mental health is of increasing concern — especially in the wake of this past year. As essential as conversations about mental health are for de-stigmatization, they often remain superficial due to the stigma associated with mental illness. Since mental illness can be chronic and significantly impair quality of life, it is imperative that scientists cut through the stigma surrounding mental illness to better inform policy and best serve the people of their community. To do this, scientists and policymakers must engage in frequent and direct communication to specifically build policy based on scientific evidence to improve the mental health of their communities.

One such way in which scientists can improve policy is by communicating to policymakers that opioid addiction is indeed both a mental health issue with biological origin and a widespread health issue contributing to the national health crisis. Recently, the Department of Defense has expanded efforts to enhance access to naloxone, a short-term antidote to opioid overdose. However, the stigma of opioid addiction can play a large role in the access to and use of naloxone. If scientists effectively communicate the benefit of promoting access to naloxone within communities especially affected by the opioid epidemic, policymakers can write informed policy to thereby enhance the number of constituents well enough to stimulate the local economy, participate in their community, and possibly seek treatment for opioid abuse. By framing addiction as a treatable health concern and working to dismantle the stigma of addiction, scientists can effectively advise policymakers on how to institute positive change in the lives of their constituents and benefit their communities (such as through enhancing resource allocation to public treatment centers, clean injection sites, and job placement).

As almost 1 in 5 Americans have at least one mental illness, the importance of deconstructing the stigma surrounding mental illness is dire. It is the duty of research scientists to be involved in writing policy affecting individuals with mental illnesses and/or their caretakers based on neuroscience and psychology so as to ultimately increase the quality of life of constituents.

Natalie Pilgeram (@N_Zfinch)

Mental Health: A Research Perspective

The wellbeing of early career researchers has recently been a topic of wide discussion — and rightfully so. Lacking in this conversation, however, is consideration of the lab managers, research specialists, animal care staff, and technicians that do so much of the heavy lifting of scientific research. Technical staff at all levels face distinctive challenges in the STEM workplace, including job insecurity, lack of formal recognition, and the competing demands of multiple lab members and PIs. At least to my knowledge, however, no studies have been conducted on the prevalence of mental health concerns among technical staff.

What has received some attention is the significant role played by technicians in supporting the wellbeing of students and trainees. In a 2019 survey of over 700 technicians employed at institutes of higher education in the UK, 60 percent reported having spoken with a student about a mental health concern, discussing issues ranging from financial hardship to harassment or ongoing conflict with a faculty advisor. Survey respondents frequently reported that they had initiated such conversations themselves after noticing a trainee struggle. Yet of this 60 percent, only about a quarter reported having received any training in how to support students in crisis. The UK-based survey also found, as might be expected, that the task of providing emotional support fell more frequently to female staff than to male. The weight of this additional responsibility likely has real implications for the careers of female STEM workers, especially in fields where female technicians are underrepresented.

We do not know much about rates of mental health concerns among technical staff in STEM. It is clear, though, that this workforce experiences great pressure to perform in multiple roles. Let’s not forget that when labs across the country were unexpectedly and rapidly shuttered in March of 2020, technical staff risked their personal safety to keep critical equipment running and ensure that research animals were fed and cared for. The UK-based Technician Commitment initiative identifies several areas, notably Recognition and Visibility, where academic institutions can be doing a better job of supporting technicians. Perhaps those of us working in STEM can make a start simply by elevating the contributions of technical staff whenever and wherever we have the chance. After all, most of us can probably recall with ease a time when the guidance of a technician made it possible to overcome an obstacle in our training. It is time to actively prioritize the wellbeing of technical staff, and to recognize their status as experts, mentors, and scientists in their own right.

Mikayla Moody (@matsci_mikayla)

Mental Health: An Advocacy Perspective

Graduate students are more likely to have a mental health disorder than the average person living in the United States. Graduate students are constantly battling between getting work done in the lab, attending classes, teaching, running organizations and committees, and trying to find time to eat and sleep. It is hard to say no to opportunities even when you already have too much on your plate.

In my own personal experience, when universities want to help students, they usually put the burden on the students to solve problems that they are facing, including mental health initiatives. This huge ask could make the problem worse, adding more work onto students.

For example, my time at the University of Connecticut has offered me a peek into the administrative frameworks of the School of Engineering. For the past couple of months, I collaborated with other engineering students, including both undergraduates and graduates, to create initiatives that would support gender minority and BIPOC students as well as increase the accessibility to mental health resources. Nonetheless, when we approached the Deans of the school with our ideas, I began to realize how intricate and almost impossible-feeling it was to get anything accomplished.

One potential reason for this is the lack of communication between students, faculty, and staff. In early 2020, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) suggested initiatives that can be done at universities that focus on the improvement of graduate student mental health and lessen the communication gap between all three parties. Here is a summary of these efforts:

  1. Check in on graduate students in the various settings that they inhabit, such as a lab, during meetings, and in a class.
  2. Create an environment in departments where graduate students feel open to discussing their mental health.
  3. Develop connections with campus centers so graduate students can feel supported beyond the lab and classroom.
  4. Integrate programs in departments that focus on the wellbeing and health of graduate students.

Implementing these efforts is definitely easier said than done, but with a third of 3000 U.S. graduate students surveyed in 2020 expressing that they have depression or anxiety, this topic should be a top priority for universities.

Despite the roadblocks I have faced with my own advocacy work, these experiences not only gave me insight into how students can interact with staff and faculty to get proposals implemented but also taught me how to manage my own mental health while advocating for others. One of the most important skills I have learned during my time in graduate school is self-advocacy. Just like how an adult must put on their oxygen mask before they put one on a child, you have to take care of yourself before you can go out and change the world.

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