There is a growing mental-illness epidemic in higher education. Academics face high levels of stress and low mental-health support. Surveys indicate that academic staff also face stress levels at or above those of health care workers. Graduate students have eight-times- higher rates of severe depression and anxiety than corresponding peers in the general population, far too often resulting in suicide. The main factors associated with PhD students’ mental- health challenges are high levels of work demands and work-life conflict, low job control, poor support from the supervisor, and exclusion from decision-making.
Not only are academics grappling with these challenges, but they also appear reluctant to share that they are suffering. While the percentage of workers in academic settings disclosing mental health concerns to their employer appears to be in the single digits, the actual percentage is likely much higher; academics have been found to be among the occupational groups with the highest levels of common mental disorders, with a prevalence of nearly one third of respondents admitting to having problems in surveys.
Right now, the biggest questions facing the academy are: What is causing this reporting discrepancy? What are the possible causes of these challenges and concerns? How can universities better support their students and staff?
Dr. Zoë Ayres is one of the voices speaking out publicly about the issue of mental health in academia. She is an analytical scientist by background, with an undergraduate degree in forensic science from Nottingham Trent University, a master’s degree in analytical chemistry, and a doctorate in electrochemical sensor development, both from University of Warwick. After spending several years in academia post-PhD, she moved to industry and is now Head of Research and Development at Figura Analytics, the President-Elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Analytical Science Community, and a trustee of the Analytical Chemistry Trust Fund. Dr. Ayres is also an advocate working toward improving mental health in research settings, with a primary focus on the mental health of graduate students. She raises awareness of the common issues grad students face through various campaigns and initiatives and is the author of the #mentalhealth poster series on Twitter (you can find her @ZJayres).
Dr. Ayres says, “For us to truly solve the biggest challenges of today, we must have diverse teams of talented individuals working toward one common goal. I also strongly believe that well-being and productivity go hand in hand, and I am interested in utilizing this intersection, enabling researchers to be at prolonged peak performance, and have better quality of life. For these reasons I advocate for improved mental health awareness and support in academia and beyond, as well as greater representation and inclusivity within STEM, alongside my day job as a research scientist.”
CH: Congratulations on your book Managing Your Mental Health During Your PhD: A Survival Guide. What drove you to write a book focusing on mental health?
ZA: I wrote the guide I wish I’d had during my PhD. I struggled heavily at times with my mental health during my PhD and finally had the strength to put my experiences and things that I’ve learned down on paper. Few books like this currently exist for PhD researchers, written from a lived-experience perspective, and so I hope it will be a valuable resource. I wanted to show it’s possible to have mental illness and navigate a PhD journey, but also not shy away from talking about some of the challenges that people might face to better prepare them to ensure they thrive in the academy.
CH: In 2020, you launched the #100voices campaign to capture individual stories over 100 days to reduce the stigma of mental health issues. Tell us more about the project, your goals, and outcomes.
ZA: When I started this project, I wasn’t sure what the uptake would be, and now I have over 300 people that have shared their mental health journeys with me. The aim of the project was to show the amazing To learn more: research that people do in academia, alongside them talking openly about their mental health, to normalize these sorts of conversations. We are not robots, but human beings! Long term my goal is to get to 500 experiences captured, and perhaps compile the accounts into a book.
CH: I see that you have collaborated with Heidi Gardner for Science On A Postcard’s (now Little Science Co) mental health collection with proceeds going to Dragonfly Mental Health. How important are collaborations for mental health advocacy?
ZA: Collaboration is a huge part of mental health advocacy, as it helps build connections as well as share the load. It’s great meeting others that have a shared purpose with me and work together. It’s also hugely valuable if I’m ever struggling (sometimes advocacy takes its toll) and having people to speak to that “get it” is fantastic. One of the biggest collaborations for me has been founding Voices of Academia with Dr. Marissa Edwards, a blog and podcast, where people contribute their academic mental health stories.
CH: Can you tell us more about your work in ED&I? What are your goals as you pick which projects to support? What has been successful? What still needs work?
ZA: ED&I work is constant vigilance, and there is always more work to be done. As I’m moving into leadership positions, I’m trying my best to advocate for change where I can and to make sure others get to contribute and that I’m not the only voice. One of my favorite projects to date was the Warwick Diversity Book Club, funded by the Royal Society of Chemistry. A team of us ran the book club for a yearlong pilot, having engagement from all levels in academia, allowing us to talk openly about diversity and inclusion in STEM. The whole project is open source and can be used by any institution.
CH: You are very active on Twitter (60K+ followers!), have a growing newsletter, and also have amazing resources on your website. What can you tell us about how you got to this point? How do you find and elevate others and grow your community? What advice do you have for other scientists who are interested in scicomm?
ZA: I still can’t quite believe the follower numbers I’ve gotten, and I wish I could share some plan for how I’ve done it. I (think) I’m genuine and perceived this way, and I think people respond better to this than to highly curated social media. I try to ensure that I engage in dialogue, not generate a one-way information stream, and I run campaigns like #100Voices to elevate others. I also started the #AcademicMentalHealth hashtag to form a sense of community. I’d say to people who are trying to use social media to get their content out there: don’t change yourself for others. Quality engagements are far more important that quantity.
To learn more:
- Visit her website: www.zjayres.com
- Follow Dr. Ayres on Twitter @ZJAyres
- Read her book Managing Your Mental Health During Your PhD
- Visit Dragonfly Mental Health
Cynthia Hurlbert is an Assistant Technical Writer with the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the National Cancer Institute. There she assists with the publication process, as well as with wellness mental-health coordinating laboratory events, large and small. She has previously worked as a private tutor in the Washington, D.C., area. She holds two bachelor’s degrees in neuroscience and microbiology from Furman University and Clemson University, respectively. She continued her educational opportunities at Uniformed Services University, studying Schistosoma spp. Hurlbert is involved in science communication and education and has pursued her passion for these fields both formally and informally. She has been an AWIS member since 2022.