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TrueTuesday: mental health    Nov 20, 2018

TrueTuesday: mental health
Nov 20, 2018


Mevrouw Noemie AUBERT BONN



Being a scientist is so much more than just a title. We all share an environment, a culture and most importantly a community. Yet despite the fact that scientific findings and knowledge are covered on all possible media, the factors that affect, characterize, and influence this community and its environment are rarely discussed and often even taboo. Every six weeks, Ph.D. student Noémie Aubert Bonn targets such a topic together with 5 experts for TrueTuesday. The first one is mental health.


The semester just started. Emails and task lists have piled up during the summer. Chaos is ready to be un-leashed. But before it all goes mayhem there is one important question we want you to ask yourself: "How are you doing?”

In the past few years, the debate about the wellbeing of scientists has gained significant momentum. Disrupted work-life balance, uncertain future opportunities, short-term contracts, multi-tasking, auto-management, competition… no wonder researchers are an interesting cohort to study.

One 2017 study in particular shook the academic landscape to its foundations. A team of researchers, led by Prof. Katia Levecque from UGent, exposed the troubling fact that Flemish Ph.D. students are far more likely to suffer from mental health problems than equivalent highly educated individuals. To make this conclusion, the team assessed Ph.D. students using the General Health Questionnaire — a 12-item questionnaire to evaluate psychological distress — and found that over half suffered from at least 2 of the 12 symptoms assessed, making them reach the threshold for psychological distress. Furthermore, 1/3rd of the participants were associated with 4 items or more, making them at risk of experiencing common psychiatric disorders. Teresa Evans and colleagues found similar trends in the USA.

Several factors may lie at the root of these issues. A lack of support and communication in the workplace, ambiguous and exaggerated demands, time constraints for conducting research, and the pressure to publish are only a few of the critical problems that are surfacing. But the lack of stability may also play a great role in the stress generated, especially for early career researchers who are unlikely to secure tenured or permanent positions in academia. But what do the experts have to say on this matter?


To explore the wellbeing of researchers from different perspectives, we went to five different experts. First, we went to prof. Frederik Anseel who was part of the core team of researchers that unveiled the mental health issues that wreak havoc among Ph.D. students in Flanders through the influential paper “Work organization and mental health problems in Ph.D. students”, published in Research Policy. Currently, he is a professor in organizational behavior and vice-dean of research at Kings College London.

Q: Disclosing the weaknesses of academia to researchers is definitely not an easy task. How was your research received in the scientific community?

A: Let’s say it was, and still is, a split vote. We received tons of positive comments and encouragements, telling us how important it was to systematically study mental health in academia. But at the same time, some did not agree with the results and even questioned our methods. I don’t have a problem with this, but what I do hope is that they acknowledge that mental health requires more attention.

Q: Considering the reactions and extensive media coverage following your findings, do you have hope that it will initiate change?

A: I don’t believe one study can usher in change. However, I do believe that our study, together with others that are currently being conducted, has helped to direct attention to the underestimated problem that is mental health issues in academia as a whole.

Q: In your personal view, what would help to protect the psychological well-being of Ph.D. students?

A: The road to obtaining a Ph.D. will always remain a difficult trajectory. It is one of the most challenging intellectual journeys one can embark on. However, an advisor/promotor with strong leader-ship skills as well as a structured and safe environment that provides a clear path forward could al-ready make all the difference.


Our next interviewee is Christine Liu, Ph.D. student in Neuroscience at UC Berkeley. Besides unravelling how the dopamine system works, she is an experienced science communicator who empowers scientists by raising awareness on academic life. She recently wrote an eye-opening piece on the effects of academic settings on researchers. Let’s ask her about it.

Q: The article starts with your personal experience of ‘imposter syndrome’. What is the imposter syndrome, and how did it affect you?

A: I am lucky in that I was introduced to the concept of imposter syndrome when I was an undergrad, before experiencing it. The day I started my Ph.D., I truly understood the negativity that imposter syndrome could bring. For me, imposter syndrome was feeling like I wasn't as capable as my peers, needing to hide when I didn't know an answer and constantly proving that I belonged. I hesitated to ask questions and was cautious in revealing gaps in knowledge. These fears were stifling my ability to grow as a scientist.

Q: You also mention that imposter syndrome might not reflect genuine inadequacy. How is that so?

A: When I learned that almost everyone deals with imposter syndrome, even tenured professors elected to prestigious societies, I began to question the concept of being an imposter in science. An imposter is someone who doesn't belong, intentionally deceiving others. The fact that nearly all scientists struggle with toxic self-doubt made me wonder how much of imposter syndrome is sparked by our scientific culture rather than a personal shortcoming.

Q: How can we counter imposter syndrome?

A: There are ways to protect ourselves from the mental strife of imposter syndrome and to promote a healthy environment for others, but I think a deeper problem to address is the idea that science is or should be, a true meritocracy. We tend to assume that previous achievements and accolades fully predict future potential, but that is simply untrue. Everyone can meaningfully contribute to science. We often tell students "there are no dumb questions”, it's about time we practice it ourselves.


Next up is Prof. Katleen Bogaerts, who recently joined the Rehabilitation Sciences and Physiotherapy research group of UHasselt. Working both in research and clinical practice, she has extensive experience on stress physiology and stress-related disorders.

Q: What is burn-out?

A: The cause of burn-out is multifactorial, implying (interactions of) work-related and person-specific risk factors. It is a result of prolonged strain without recuperation. Chronic stress leads to dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system and HPA axis; causing a wide range of impairing cognitive, affective and physical complaints, of which feeling exhausted is a key symptom.

Q: Being a researcher, do you think that certain elements of your career increase the risk of burn-out?

A: It is important that job demands never outstrip a person’s ability to cope with stress. Known job-related risk factors include unrealistically high workloads, low social support, lack of reward or recognition, poor organizational resources, low levels of job control, etc. However, some personality pro-files are more susceptible than others. Burn-out often affects precisely those who are hard-working, perfectionistic, conscientious, being in control, and loyal. These are very positive qualities but they may be pitfalls too. It is essential to know how to engage these qualities in your benefit instead of losing yourself in them.

Q: Can science inform us on techniques to fight burn-out?

A: We know that only prescribed sick leave and rest does not work. There are three different stages in treatment: a recuperation phase (complaints reduction, dosage and relaxation); active recovery phase (learning coping skills, tackling problems and avoidance); and reintegration phase (gradual employment integration, putting new skills into practice and relapse prevention). International guidelines suggest a multidisciplinary approach, including cognitive-behavioral treatment and organizational interventions as being most effective.


Susanna Harris is a Ph.D. student in microbiology at the University of North Carolina, USA, and our second interviewee. In addition to the hard work and struggle of completing a Ph.D., Susanna founded The PhDepression LLC.

Q: Before anything, what is The PhDepression LLC, and what inspired you to create it?

A: The PhDepression LLC is an online community dedicated to raising awareness and promoting discussion of mental illness in Higher Education. After reading the 2018 Nature Biotech paper from Evans, et al about how nearly 40% of graduate students may have anxiety or depression, I felt much less alone. I deal with clinical depression, but it’s not something that I would ever talk about with my peers – we are all trying so hard to hide our flaws and insecurities. I wanted to challenge the idea that we are all as happy and okay as we look (say, on social media) and the PhDepression page was born.

Q: Who is the target of The PhDepression LLC? Is it only for Ph.D. students?

A: We want to create a world in which academics can seek out help for their mental health just as easily as they do for their physical health and educational growth. Emotional well-being should be part of being a productive member of Academia, whether that person is a grad student, has long-since left grad school, or is looking forward to starting their journey in Higher Ed!

Q: So far, how has it been received in the scientific community? Has it been welcomed or criticized?

A: Almost all responses have been enthusiastically positive! Sure, there are some people who are skeptical that anything can really be changed, and we still get the occasional “well, grad school is supposed to be hard.” There seems to be a generational effect, where younger faculty and trainees are especially welcoming to the project and are most eager to help, but nobody of any age has tried to stop us!


Dr. Karolien Notebaert is a cognitive neuroscientist who cofounded Notebaert Consulting, a company that brings science to business. Last year, she spoke at TEDxUHasselt. Her talk, “Hack your own brain”, described the power of mindfulness self-regulation as a way to man-age and optimize our cognitive potential and avoid mental exhaustion.

Q: Researchers have been found to suffer from high levels of stress and to be at risk of mental strain and psychological distress. How do you think mindfulness can help them?

A: Stress is caused by too much activation in a brain region called the amygdala. When this occurs, the amygdala will drain energy from the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is significantly involved in our analytical and cognitive skills that are of crucial importance for researchers. Mindfulness will effectively downregulate amygdala activation and boost the prefrontal cortex. It is exactly this change in our brain that increases our cognitive and analytical skills – without having to work more!

Q: What is mindfulness?

A: Mindfulness is a scientifically underbuilt self-regulation strategy with which we can – as good as it gets – develop our own potential and an improved cognitive performance. It al-lows us to become the best version of ourselves. But no need for candles in our ears, it’s far from esotery.

Q: Part of the stress in academia comes from the high pressure and lack of time. Is it realistic to believe that adding mindfulness to researchers’ already exploding schedules will actually help them?

A: As a scientist and practitioner of mindfulness, I am convinced that it will lead to less mental workload and greater cognitive results. With only 5 to 10 minutes of practice per day, effects will already kick in. Regular, at best daily, practice is important. However, it is of crucial importance that mindfulness is practiced in the correct way, so be aware of charlatans. Mindfulness is not just any type of meditation!


Be sure out to check out our social media next week Tuesday to discover what our new TrueTuesday topic will be.