How I Learned The Importance Of Voicing My Needs

Published: January 13, 2021

by Jessica Bou Nassar, Paalini Sathiyaseelan and Vivienne Tam
Science and Policy Exchange (SPE)

Through the lenses of graduate students

Vivienne — My first year in my PhD program felt like I was swimming in a deep ocean with no anchor, no life jacket, and no path to the shore. I knew in theory what the desired outcomes of my project were but when the experiments I spent my days running did not produce those outcomes, it felt like I was treading water. All the lab hours I was putting in were bringing me no closer to the overarching goals of my project. I was drowning under the weight of expectation and personal responsibility.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault, more a matter of circumstance. The previous student who had been working on my project had graduated the year before. No one was present to train me and bring me up to speed. Even though my principal investigator (PI) was willing to help, I was unsure of what I needed before I reached out for help. It felt like it was my own problem to deal with and when everyone else in my lab seemed to be doing perfectly fine, I struggled with frustration and the stress it brought on. The worst part was that there was no one to talk to.

The turning point came near the end of my first year when I attended an event where my PI was a keynote speaker. She spoke of her own journey through academia and mentioned that she wanted her students to be comfortable talking about their failures and frustrations.

In our following one-on-one meeting, I decided to openly share the failure and disappointment I had been facing in my research. To my relief, she responded with much compassion, and while research does not stop being stressful, having an understanding Supervisor has made all the difference in helping me feel supported and less alone.

Interestingly, the attitude of PIs towards students’ mental health was one of the major topics of discussion during a café round table discussion hosted by Science and Policy Exchange in July 2020,. It featured graduate students in major universities across Montreal and the discussion touched on PI’s who may be adept at managing research labs but who may not necessarily be good at managing people and navigating tricky conversations surrounding mental health.

How can PI’s create a lab culture that normalizes conversation surrounding mental health?

Should PI’s be evaluated not merely based on their publications but their ability to provide support and mentorship to the students under their care? This would include their awareness of mental health issues that can arise during a PhD program. Furthermore, how can a PI be better trained and prepared to address these issues when they arise?

These were some of the pertinent questions that were raised during the discussion, pointing to the PI-student relationship as a key factor in confronting the mental health crisis among graduate students.

Paalini — While re-defining the PI-student relationship is the first step to shedding light on the ignorance of mental health in academia, the complexities of the situation are deep-rooted and require further inspection. The SPE Café served as a safe space for graduate students to voice their mental health concerns, which were aggregated into a report and distributed to stakeholders.

One of the concerns that were highlighted in the report was that existing mental health resources are generalized and aren’t tailored to the challenges faced by the diverse groups of student bodies such as BIPOC students. As an international student and a person of colour, I empathize with these concerns while keeping in mind that everyone follows a different path.

When I started my PhD in the unfamiliar city of Vancouver, I was forced to establish a life without the support of familial or social connections. The financial instabilities of graduate school was an added challenge. Between juggling the academic expectations — which surprisingly doesn’t take into consideration the external challenges faced by diverse groups within the student body and personal struggles — my mental health was dwindling.

Overwhelmed, I knew I needed help.

I was disappointed because the resources at my academic institution were general and weren’t relevant to my situation. The handful of counselors that I was finally able to connect with weren’t able to sympathize with my struggles as an international student and a person of colour in graduate school.

As a last resort, I was directed to consult with an international academic advisor even though the symptoms of my mental health were apparent. This dismissal of my mental health concerns made me question my struggles — none of which were sufficiently addressed by the mental health resources provided by my institution. In fact, the lack of support further affected my mental health, which would suggest that ineffective help only worsens the situation.

Therefore, we need to ask ourselves: Is there enough BIPOC representation in the context of mental health professionals? Are there sufficient and efficient resources to meet the demands and challenges faced by the diversity of student populations within an institution?

Jessica — In addition to improving the inclusivity and diversity of mental health resources and services, there is a need to fight stigma in academic institutions.

Due to the fear of the stigma surrounding mental health, some students hesitate to seek help or to identify as suffering from mental health problems. The lack of policies securing students’ confidentiality and anonymity while accessing mental health services often reinforces their hesitance. While such policies are essential to encourage students to get help, there is a need to address the root of the problem.

Mental health needs more discussion to promote awareness at national, provincial, and institutional levels. However, this discussion is vital within academic labs as well. In other words, (1) top-down approaches that entail governments and institutions mobilizing awareness campaigns and (2) bottom-up approaches that include supervisors and PI encouraging mental health discussions and favoring healthy and open lab cultures, are required.

To destigmatize mental health problems in academia, we need more data. Statistics surrounding mental health problems in academic institutions can be an evidence-based form of awareness — proof that mental health problems are abundant. Communicating statistics to supervisors and PI’s would help them recognize that students in their own labs might be suffering from poor mental health. Amplifying the data on university-wide platforms would help students (especially those who hesitate to seek help) realize they are not alone. Of course, this would require institutions to actively collect data on graduate students’ mental health and report them to the public. Mental health advocacy groups could help gather data too, and the good part is that you can contribute to that process by sharing your experiences on their platforms!

A few days ago, I took a survey, launched by Nurau, that aims to maintain an active, ongoing database describing the state of mental health among graduate students in Quebec; the data would then inform future interventions. What I liked most about the survey is that it tries to understand graduate students’ unique needs and touches on equity, diversity, and inclusivity (EDI). Such data collection initiatives complement awareness campaigns — which become more impactful once supported with extensive evidence.

To change the narrative, normalize mental health discussions, and destigmatize mental health problems, we need evidence. Data collection initiatives are necessary, producing clear evidence that will help spark effective change. We will also need to use all mediums to better communicate and amplify the evidence. Change happens one step at a time.

The first step has begun.