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 They cited statistics (albeit a bit out of date) about the rates of depression and suicide in the African-American community and many expressed disappointment about how high these statistics were.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?