Hashtags and (Mental) Health: A Shared Experience

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Written by Dr. Erika E. Alexander

On Thursday, May 15, twitter account @BlackandSTEM started a conversation about mental health of graduate students using a hashtag of the same name. @Blackandstem asked a simple question: Have you ever used therapy? As discussion of the topic progressed, I was struck by how few commenters there were and the homogeneity of the sample.

The lack of commenters is one that may appear have a simple explanation, but really reflects a more complex issue. Investigation of twitter avatars suggests that the virtually all commenters were black women. This reflects both the small representation of African-Americans within STEM fields, but it also signifies the unwillingness of this small population to show what may be perceived to be weakness. In a group of people who are already facing a lot of pressure to thrive and exceed expectations, there is no room for anything that might suggest they are not the “chosen ones”, the great and perfect ambassadors of their race or ethnic group.

Several commenters brought up the issue of “the strong black woman/man” and how this term makes it almost impossible for people within the African-American community to feel justified or supported in getting mental health help. They cited statistics (albeit a bit out of date) about the rates of depression and suicide in the African-American community and many expressed disappointment about how high these statistics were. A little digging into more recent analyses shows African-Americans are 20% more likely to report having serious psychological distress, but are less likely to receive anti-depressant prescription treatment than Non-Hispanic Whites. Non-Hispanic blacks also have higher rates of self-reporting feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness and that daily life is an effort than Non-Hispanic Whites. Read more here. It would appear that Non-Hispanic Blacks have the same issues dealing with daily life as other races, but they are less likely to ask for help coping with these issues. So why are they not seeking help?

I believe this relates to my second observation: how many tweeters wished that they had in fact gone to therapy while pursuing graduate degrees in STEM fields, suggesting that they did not seek help when they needed it. Professionals of color in STEM face an immense amount of pressure, from families, colleagues, and from themselves to be the best. Graduate programs in STEM often place them in departments where they are one of very few (and sometimes, only) person of color, This has a tendency to add an additional layer of stress, in the form of striving to represent their ethnic group in a positive way; to prove that they and those like them do belong in this ivory tower of knowledge. While some thrive in these high-stress situations, others may need a little help to develop healthy coping mechanisms, particularly when negative situations arise. However, in a field that looks down upon any sign of weakness, it becomes exponentially more difficult to admit that one needs help, let alone reach out for it. In a previous Poston Collective article, Dr. Chloe Poston does a fantastic job of describing the pressure that professionals of color and women in STEM careers face to be perfect, todisprove stereotypes about their racial or gender group, and to show no weakness, even if it comes at the expense of their mental wellbeing:

“….without being likeable, a woman may be respected but whispered about by her peers. Men don’t really have this problem, because aggression is generally accepted as a masculine trait. Women of color must maintain the balance described above and manage to negate stereotypes without losing a sense of identity. I would argue that this is the case for any person of color.”- from Women Aren’t the Only People Who Should “Lean In”

This story and hashtag bring up very personal memories for me. During a particularly rough patch of my graduate studies, I began seeing a therapist for about a year. At my graduate institution, as at many institutions, psychological health services are covered by student health insurance, and they were happy to plan our meetings around my hectic schedule. Sharing my experiences with an impartial professional helped me work through a lot of my issues, and I felt more capable of handling my workload and personal life. During the time we spent together, she helped me develop essential coping mechanisms that assisted me throughout the rest of my graduate school experience. I credit my time with this therapist with helping me finish the rest of my graduate program in a strong, confident manner. As a result of my experience, I am a passionate proponent of using therapy to work through difficult situations, whether one is in graduate school or in other phases of life.

By placing mental health on the very bottom of their list of priorities, many STEM graduate students are doing themselves and their field a great disservice. You simply cannot be the best scientist/engineer/mathematician that you can be, without taking time to care for yourself mentally. Many people work out at the gym and eat a healthy diet because they consider it fueling and maintenance of their body; they hope that by caring for their body they will increase its longevity and power. But they seem to forget that their minds need care as well, and that without mental maintenance, it does not matter how well you care for the rest of your body. I believe that finding ways to maintain one’s mental stability is essential for completing graduate school and many commenters on the #blackandstem topic agree. In fact, I suspect the attrition rate for people of color would significantly decrease if mental health resources were made more available, and if the stigma associated with asking for help was reduced. STEM fields are losing some of the world’s greatest researchers because they did not receive the assistance they needed to thrive at the graduate school level, or because they did not feel comfortable asking for help.

So how do we make therapy in graduate school less scary? We start talking about it. A lot. To everyone and anyone who will listen. I salute @BlackandStem for starting this discussion on twitter, and encourage others to start talking conversations about the importance of mental health on other social media platforms. At an individual level, those of us who have used a therapist can share their experiences with others who may be having difficulties. We can pass along information about nearby mental health resources so that people know they have options. We need to let people know that it is ok to ask for help when they need it, and that choosing their mental health over what someone else might think is always the right choice. We must change the narrative from shaming people who show “weakness” by seeking psychological help, to one that celebrates their discernment and courage in fixing problem before it gets worse. By doing these things, maybe we can help slow the tide of researchers leaving the world of STEM before it is their time and encourage the innovators of the future to continue along their career path.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. What are some other ways that we can change the narrative about the value of maintaining mental health? What are some ways you use to cope with the emotional roller-coaster of graduate school and STEM careers?

To Stay Or to Go: Is STEM Academia Family Friendly?


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Written by Dr. Erika E. Alexander

When I began my PhD program at the tender age of 23, many of my college friends were getting married, having babies, and starting new jobs.  My Facebook newsfeed was filled with status updates about engagements and weddings, as well as pictures of ultrasounds and adorable toddlers.  After a few years in my program, I started seeing more marriage/baby announcements from fellow graduate students and newly graduated postdocs.  I looked around at scientific conferences I was attending, and noticed the large numbers of people with scientific posters in one hand, and small children in the other.  It seemed many of my colleagues were settling down and starting careers in STEM, with their families in tow. So how do they do it?  Is academia, at its core, family friendly?

The obvious pro of having a significant other/spouse/family while still in graduate school is that you have a built-in support system. Regardless of the stage of the PhD process, a solid support system is key to a student’s success and perseverance in the face of inevitable adversity. Most moms and dads will talk about the joys of coming home to a child who is always ecstatic to see them, and a spouse to confide in. Although, I am unmarried and don’t have children (for now), I still credit my significant other with being the ever-present confidante/cheerleader that I needed to finish my program. Many graduate students I encountered brought a spouse with them to school, and some began families while matriculating through their PhD.

Financially, having a family or a spouse can be beneficial to an academic as well. Most PhD programs do not pay graduate students very much in the way of stipends, so having an employed spouse to split the bills with makes the financial load easier. Although academics work much longer hours than their non-academic counterparts, their schedules are also a lot more flexible.  Some parents are able to choose a work schedule that best fits their familial needs.  They can also leave work to handle unexpected family emergencies without a problem, and in some cases, can even work from home.  This flexibility of scheduling can certainly make carving out time for family that much easier.

However, once the doctorate is complete, having a family or a spouse can actually be a reason for leaving the academy.  Previous studies have shown that women with STEM PhDs are up to twice as likely as their male counterparts to leave their STEM jobs because of the perception of their STEM work environments as unfriendly towards women.  This perception of academia as an unfriendly work environment, where healthy work-life balance is a scarce commodity, is clearly something that needs to be addressed by the academic community as a whole.

In a brief released in March 2014, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) highlights the differences in early academic career outcomes here. The AIR study found that married women are the least likely to start academic careers at prestigious research institutions as compared to their unmarried female peers and their male (unmarried and married) peers.  This isn’t just a problem for women. Married men and women who receive PhDs in STEM are overall less likely to begin their careers at a research institution, than their unmarried counterparts. The AIR study also reports that having a child results in a “disadvantage” for both men and women for securing a position at a research institution.  Of those with academic positions, only 14% of women and 22% of men had at least one child under that age of 5 at the time of earning their degree. Women and men without young children were also significantly more likely to secure positions at research institutions, as compared to those with at least one small child.

While I would not call having children a “disadvantage” in finding job security, they are a significant life change, which can have lasting impacts on the careers of the caregivers. Scientists with families generally have different priorities than a single academic. Whereas a PhD with no children may feel comfortable working 60-80 hour weeks, some scientists may want a less demanding work-schedule so that they can guarantee time with the kids. It should be noted that the added financial responsibility of caring/providing for children could be an issue for parents considering leaving the field. The STEM career path in academia is filled with opportunities to ‘pay your dues’, but these training positions simply may not pay enough to support a family. And although traveling to other parts of the countries might result in better job opportunities, a choice is often made to limit the job search area so as to not to unnecessarily uproot children or spouses.  If this means turning down prestigious job opportunities or even leaving the academe altogether for the sake of family, these PhDs appear willing to make the sacrifice. But in forcing them to make a choice between family and science, the academy loses the diversification so necessary for its survival.

While an academic career in STEM has innate benefits for young families, there seems to be a disconnect between what families need and what the academe is providing, leading to an exodus of many talented researchers.  But in the interest of diversifying the professoriate and thus the pool of knowledge, shouldn’t the needs of scientists with families also be accommodated?

These leads to the question of how to best accommodate families of STEM academics. And while much of the current research focuses on the PhD recipient, I’d be curious to learn about academic life from the perspective of the non-STEM associated significant other. What is it like to be the support system for someone as they traverse the academic career track? Are there ways that your significant other’s career has negatively or positively affected your personal or professional life? How can the academe evolve so as not to push scientists with families away from the academic career pathway?

What do you think?  Can STEM careers be good for families?  Are you a STEM PhD with a family or the spouse of a STEM PhD? Why did your family decide to stay in STEM or go?