COVID-19 Poses Mental Health Challenges within the Research Community

by Jamie Vernon | Sep 29, 2020

Jamie Vernon In a recent post on Twitter, Dr. Anthony Ocampo, assistant professor of sociology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and a Ford Foundation Fellow, wrote that he asked his students to respond anonymously to the prompt “Things You Wish Your Professors Knew." With their permission, he paraphrased the responses in subsequent posts. The first response that he shared from a student stated, “quarantine is impacting my mental health.” I think it’s fair to say that this student is not alone. The COVID-19 crisis is affecting all of us in unexpected ways, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the current situation is likely to be exacerbating mental health challenges within the research community.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Nature assembled a collection titled “Science careers and mental health” that included numerous reports and articles on this important issue. The collection covered a variety of topics including stress, anxiety, imposter syndrome, perfectionism, grief, depression, and burnout. The editors cited a 2017 Nature survey, which showed 12% of all respondents had sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD studies. A 2018 survey found that about 40% of graduate students experienced moderate to severe depression and anxiety. In social media posts, letters, and essays written by faculty and students working in STEM fields, we’re learning that COVID-19 is adding to an already prevalent problem and that students, researchers, and educators are facing a mental health crisis.

Efforts are underway by universities and colleges to provide help and assistance. The approaches range from cultivating mentorship skills to developing and promoting peer support for colleagues. In 2018, the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced it would put a total of $2 million (£1.5 million) towards improving mental health at 17 of its universities with several initiatives designed to better train and equip PhD supervisors to mentor their students. According to a recent C&EN article, at the University of Detroit Mercy, Matthew Mio, chair of chemistry and biochemistry, personally checks in with the 16 faculty members in his department and physics weekly. To support his own mental health, he meets with a therapist and uses the Calm app, which promotes meditation and is free for educators.

While there is a lot of activity in this area, it appears individual institutions are developing initiatives based on their own needs and there are few overarching, systemic approaches. In 2019, the Council of Graduate Schools and the Jed Foundation launched a research project to assess the state of mental-health resources and support for graduate students. The initiative will provide recommendations for future approaches to promote mental and emotional well being in students. The results of this monumental project will be released later this year.

On October 10, 2020, the World Health Organization will recognize World Mental Health Day. Given the unique circumstances created by COVID-19, it will be of utmost importance to consider how to immediately help invest in mental health. Sigma Xi is exploring ways to serve its members and the broader research community. From healthcare workers providing support under difficult circumstances to students who are adjusting to remote classes, we welcome your recommendations for providing relief to those who need it.

Please also let us know in the comments below if there are successful steps being taken by your institution so that we may share them with others who are exploring solutions to these challenges.


Related Reading

A better future for graduate-student mental health

Source: Nature

Staying in and Staying Healthy: Insights for Positive Mental Health in Graduate School

Source: The Behavioral Neuroscientist and Comparative Psychologist

Science careers and mental health

Source: Nature

The Emotional Toll of Graduate School

Source: Scientific American

I wish I’d taken my mental health more seriously in grad school

Source: Science

Mental Health Crisis for Grad Students

Source: Inside Higher Education

Jamie Vernon is the executive director and CEO at Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society, and publisher of American Scientist.

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