PhD balance - a students’ initiative for better mental health in academia


Subhayu Bagchi in conversation with Susanna L Harris

  Susanna L Harris recently defended her PhD thesis in Microbiology and graduated from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is the founder of a students’ mental health initiative - ‘PhD Balance’ that strives to create awareness about a taboo topic in academic circles. Through this, she and her cohort are slowly creating a safe environment where people are coming forward to talk openly about their mental health issues and how to deal with them. With time, she aims to tackle it as more of a research problem than just a personal one. The following interview from her greatly depicts the human side of academia, especially the STEM fields.

  1. Tell us a little about how you got started in this journey that led to the creation of PhD Balance.
  Back in February 2018, a Nature Biotechnology publication "Evidence for a Mental Health Crisis in Graduate Education" stated that up to 40% of graduate students were dealing with signs or symptoms of anxiety or depression. Reading this, I wished that this information had been available to me the year before, when I was dealing with my own mental health crisis. I wished more people were talking about these things. I happened to be at a conference with about 200 other people, but when I looked around, I was sure that I was maybe only one of the few people in the room with depression. This made me realize: we have an idea of what a successful graduate student or what a graduate student who deals with mental illness looks like – but we don’t acknowledge that these are often the same people. Instagram is a great platform to share stories and pictures. So, I started PhDepression to let people connect over their stories with mental illness in higher education, and the page just took off. We’ve since rebranded to be PhD Balance to better represent how we feel about mental health – graduate education should support both a students’ academic progress and their overall wellness, as these two things are intrinsically linked.

  2. The idea of PhD Balance as a community of peers coming together to talk about mental health issues is in a way unique. It seems to have drawn inspiration from the ideas of group therapy. How has the increased accessibility of social media affected how PhD Balance has evolved? What kind of awareness activities do you conduct?
   Thank you! We believe that personal stories carry more weight than just statistics. People relate to others’ accounts and can find inspiration to support themselves, connect with others, and even feel less alone (a major problem for graduate students, in general, and especially for those struggling with mental illness). Right now, most of our presence is online, where we share these stories and try to provide some basic resources. But we are moving towards creating more in-person outreach and support... stay tuned!

  3. In society, people still tend to tiptoe around conversations of mental health. When it comes to academic circles, the taboo seems to be even more than usual, maybe because academics are perceived to be intellectually high-functioning individuals. How does the PhD Balance initiative aim to make a difference in this scenario?
  I think academics are afraid to be judged and perceived as incompetent or weak. So many of us struggle with Imposter Syndrome (feeling like we don’t belong where we are and don’t deserve to have credit for our accomplishments) that we don’t talk about our failures. Everyone struggles. Every. Single. Person. The best researchers I have met are honest about what they don’t know and try to find the answers as quickly as possible – we aim to create the same atmosphere for people dealing with mental health issues, as well as academic and professional trials.

  4. Is there a difference (subtle or not) between undergraduate and graduate education, in what causes stress and if so, do the ways to handle it also differ?
  Absolutely. Graduate students and undergraduates face completely different life issues (on average). Most undergraduates are between 18 and 25 years old, often live on campus, have orientations and classes on how to survive college, and are given plenty of open access to resources – most of which are tailored to their needs. Undergraduates have clearer goals and expectations of them, and there is an endpoint in sight. Graduate students are older, have other life considerations (family, housing, financial requirements), and many feel lost within their own programs. Their success is hugely based on the mentorship they receive, and many don’t even know if they have access to resources. Compared to undergraduate life, they might have a much less clear path to success and fewer people to reach out to for advice and support.

  5. What would you recommend as a way to deal with depression and anxiety in places where mental health is still not openly discussed and where a lot of premier institutes are situated away from areas where professional help is available, in closed off communities?
  Everyone needs to talk with someone; this can be a trusted advisor, a counselor, friends and family, a spiritual leader, etc. PhD balance gives people a space to connect in semi-anonymous ways and hopefully find some peer support through that. Students can emulate this within their own universities, possibly through creating “coffee hours” or study groups where they can openly discuss their issues. Also, there are usually at least some staff at all institutions who are there specifically to support students – Office of Graduate Affairs, Student Counseling Services, Ombuds Offices – and graduate students might not know that these people exist. The first step is just to talk with someone about how they are feeling and find people who will listen and support them through their personal improvement journey.

  6. An important component of stress free lives are peers. Drawing from your experience, how would one be able to notice that someone he/she knows is going through stress at workplace/lab/academically, especially if the person suffering might not be openly asking for help or talking about it? And what can someone do to help?
  This is a tough one. First, realize that you are not a trained professional and that you have your own limitations (both in terms of helping others and in terms of supporting your own mental health and balance). Second, find a time to tell the person, in private, that you’ve noticed some things of concern. Tell them you care about them and want them to be as successful and happy as possible. 3) Find resources for them. It’s so hard to find these things when you are already struggling. Offer to help them access the resources or even to go with them to appointments and etc. 4) Don’t be offended if they don’t want your help. It’s good for them to know you are there, regardless, and they might not be ready to move forward with these things. HOWEVER: if you are concerned about someone’s safety, please talk to a professional at the University who can intervene and help the person. You are better off losing a friendship than losing a friend.

  7. Certain faculty/advisors might be unwillingly/unintentionally exerting undue pressure on their students. Even if not so, sensitivities of students are varied. What course of action can a faculty take to identify and rectify this? How important a role does the institute play in handling such a case?
  Holding regular progress meetings with students is crucial. Ask open ended questions: Instead of “Are you happy in lab ? ” ask “How are you feeling in lab?” Or instead of asking “Am I doing enough to support you ?” ask “what could I better do to support you?” And then LISTEN to the response and think carefully about your next actions. Ask yourself if you can address the students’ needs or if you need to reach out to someone else to guide you. Faculty also are not usually mental health professionals (no, a one-day course on mental health first aid is not enough) so they should feel comfortable reaching out to support staff.

  8. Beginning graduate life itself is a big change for a lot of students. It usually means moving away from family (maybe for the first time), new places, new faces. What are your words of advice for people making this transition, on graduate life itself, its roses, its thorns and ways to cope.
  Building a support system is an investment of time and energy, but you will be paid back in full for this effort. Find people with whom you can be honest about your feelings and struggles. These people will likely be outside of your lab or even your department. The people you will lean on for support will also lean on you, and you will create your own graduate ‘family’ for getting through the tough times and celebrating the successes.

  9. How do you see the mental health movement growing globally in the coming years? How do you see us reaching out to and engaging more allies in this conversation?
  I think we, as a community, are heading in the right direction. People are speaking out, both publicly and privately. We are asking for more support and demanding than universities take action. Higher levels of administration are working towards finding solutions. This will be a long and iterative process, but it’s already a better environment for at least discussing mental health issues than it was a decade ago. As younger generations move up in power, we can bring with us these viewpoints and experiences. To engage more allies, we should looks across departments and universities to see how others are doing a better job than we are, and we need to be humble in knowing we will never be perfect as researchers, academics, or even just as humans. We are all growing, failing, and learning.

  10. Ending on a lighter note, tell us a little about yourself and your graduate research.
  I absolutely love my project, and it’s been the part of graduate school that has kept me going. I am finishing up (!!!) a PhD in microbiology. I study how bacteria interact with each other on the roots of plants. These bacteria can help the plant grow, even when faced with illnesses and environmental stresses. Hopefully, my research can help us better use these “beneficial” bacteria to increase crop production while reducing the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. In my spare time, I love snuggling my dogs, kickboxing, and doing science outreach through the local science center. Helping others help themselves is my absolute passion, and doing science outreach and mental health advocacy makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something important even when my research or my studies aren’t going so well. Finding motivation has been essential for me in getting through the last five years.

Interviewer’s bio: Subhayu Bagchi is an alumnus of IISER Kolkata. He is currently a grad physics researcher at Ole Miss; and a games and puzzles aficionado. He also dabbles in freelancing, music and scicomm. Never perfect.