A physics graduate student’s perspective on mental health in academia

My story
August 2, 2022
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I studied physics and astrophysics at one of the second best places in the world to study physics (according to US News), and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. This was partially due to hypercompetitive and isolating classes, but poor mental health also ran rampant in the department. 

While there, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Every Friday, I’d have multiple physics problem sets due, and the crippling anxiety for whether I was even smart enough to finish them started on Monday each week. Struggling with mental health, an extremely competitive academic environment, and also an abusive relationship made my undergrad experience nearly unbearable and my grades fell. Somehow through the research I engaged in actively as an undergraduate, I still maintained my passion for science and am now a PhD student in physics at McGill University.

In my cohort of approximately 100 undergraduate physics or astrophysics majors, I knew of three students who were “5150ed”. This term is not used in Canada, but it indicates when someone is taken involuntarily into police custody for being a danger to themselves, others, or being gravely disabled. All of the cases I knew of from my classmates were around suicide attempts or threats associated with dire mental health. Around the same time as I was an undergraduate between 2015-2016, the state wide percentage of people who had been 5150ed was 46.5 people per 10,000 in the state of California, or 0.465%. I was surprised that the statistic was so high, but even more alarmed that my own undergraduate physics community in the same state had a rate nearly 10 times higher (at >= 3%).

Data between 2009-2015 suggest that mental health disorders can affect up to 1 in 5 undergraduate students. As for graduate students, they are 2 to 6 times more likely to experience anxiety and depression as compared to the general population. In my own field of astrophysics, a survey was taken by 276 astrophysicists in France. Out of those who responded to the survey, there was a 25% increase in those who had mental health issues currently and those who started in the field with mental health issues. 

There are already many studies on how cultivating a culture of openness and care can destigmatize and improve students’ mental health. Perhaps even including disclosures of professors’ mental health in syllabi for courses can help better student mental health. 

To improve the mental health of physics graduate students at McGill, I have organized a mental wellness in physics talk series where physicists share their mental health experiences and paths through physics in an open, non-judgemental way. These stories have included difficult times in physicists’ lives and started important conversations on dealing with mental health as a physics graduate student. This is not always a comfortable process, and I’ve received pushback on this series, but I believe open discussions around mental wellness are essential for students in physics to be successful. Mental health may even be a part of why the academic pipeline is so leaky..

Nurau is one of the organizations in Quebec also working towards a culture of openness and care around the subject of mental health. In fact, they recently published the first of their white paper series on the state of mental wellness in graduate school, showing the effect that a foreigner status can have on one’s mental wellbeing. Through organizations like Nurau and initiatives like the talk series I started, I hope that academia will recognize that we can do better research when we feel well supported in both our physical and mental health. 

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