Monday, November 28, 2016

A depressing post about graduate student (and postdoctoral) mental health

This is a depressing post about mental health. I'd love it if you were to give me advice on this; if you don't want to read it, I won't be offended.

In the past two months, a very prominent department of chemistry in the United States reported the deaths of a graduate student and a postdoctoral fellow to its members. There have been no media reports.

In the past two years, another very prominent department of chemistry in the United States also suffered a death of one of its graduate students. There were also no media reports.

I'd like to ask for some advice here about my obligations to the families of the deceased, the affected department and the broader chemistry community in situations like this, especially those where it is clear that the cause of death was neither natural causes or foul play.

I believe I owe the families of the deceased and the affected department a sufficient period of time to mourn, privacy, discretion and fairness. If I were in such a situation, that's what I would ask of myself.

I believe that I owe the broader chemistry community accuracy, a certain level of transparency and a long-lasting record of those who have entered academia in the flower of their youth and died, potentially due to the mental health strains of graduate school. To even begin to try to solve a problem (or see if we have a problem at all*), you have to see how big the problem is - and I assert that we have no idea. Silence doesn't seem to be helpful, either.

Readers, I am open to your opinions on this, including the opinion that I am not a mental health professional and that publicly recording these deaths in any form may encourage suicidal ideation on the part of vulnerable graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. I want to do the right thing, and blogging about this may not be the right thing.

Important links: The National Suicide Prevention lifeline, warning signs of suicide

*We have no statistics about the relative rate of suicides amongst graduate students versus the general population. 

35 comments:

  1. It's been a while since I read up on this, but reports of specific suicides tend to lead to an increase in the suicide rate in the area where the reports are made. It's essentially concluded to be causative at this point. Therefore as a matter of journalistic ethics, news organisations refrain from reporting on suicides, and various mental health organisations have guidelines on how to report on them in the least harmful way.

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    1. A helpful resource to me on this was this website: http://reportingonsuicide.org/

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  2. There's a strong culture of silence in academia, and I'm not surprised that these incidents were kept quiet.

    When I was in grad school, I used to think about stepping in front of a truck as I would wait for the bus every day, and it probably would have been written off as an accident if I had done it. A friend of mine who got his PhD at another school told me a story of a classmate who died under similarly ambiguous circumstances that could have been suicide or an accident (my friend suspects it was a suicide, but can't prove it).

    It will probably be difficult to measure reliable statistics on grad student suicide, both because of the difficulty of proving cause and the unwillingness of faculty members to confront anything that might embarrass their department.

    We didn't have any suicides during my time at a large, well-known department, but I knew several individuals who were in danger of it (myself included).

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    1. I started typing before Alex's comment appeared. I didn't realize there was a conscious effort by news organizations to avoid triggering copycats; I thought this was just typical grad school sweeping the departmental dirty laundry under the rug stuff (which is probably still very much a part of it).

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  3. I know some of the incidents you are referring to, I was disgusted by the lack of coverage on the subject. I only found out because I know postdocs/grad students at the institutions. I think the deceased deserve some sort of acknowledgement.

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  4. I believe the circumstances leading up to a suicide are often complex, and the factors that make the difference between a troubled and stressful time in one life and the end of another are hard to quantify. I am not saying that attempting to do so is useless, but that the problem is hard, and that apparent noise in the data, as well as factors which are impossible to discern without in-depth fact-gathering (interviews, etc.) on a case-by-case basis, probably matter more than we think. I think analysis of a suicide from a distance probably is nothing more than an attempt to confirm our own biases, and an attempt to make sense of a senseless, horrifying tragedy.

    My opinions come from my own experience: as a synthetic organic graduate student, I had my own struggles with suicidal ideation. In the end, I realized that, although they brought the problem to a head, the stresses of grad school were merely a catalyst: other problems in my life were present in stoichiometric amounts. Once I found more healthy ways of dealing with those issues, the stresses of grad school life became far more manageable, and I found my way to a far healthier state of mind.

    I was lucky: my school offered free, confidential access to counseling services, and, at the urging of one person who cared about me, I availed myself of those opportunities to get help. Would I be dead if I hadn't? I would like to think not, but there's no denying that seeing a licensed professional helped me immensely.

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    1. In my own situation, there were definitely no other contributing causes. Undergrad was the happiest four years of my life, and I never came anywhere near contemplating suicide before or after grad school.

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  5. I'm not qualified to weigh in on whether or not it will be helpful to report on the details. I might recommend that my undergraduates not go to that particular school, but I know that similar pressures exist at many graduate programs across many disciplines and vary wildly based on PI. I do feel that this is an appropriate time to share support for those anonymous readers who may be struggling with severe depression, enormous stress, and/or suicidal thoughts. KT's comment above highlights something that is definitely important to share: many bright scientists (and wonderful human beings) have felt despair and struggled with suicidal thoughts. If KT's story (and other similar stories) had ended in grad school, the world would be a bleaker place. I hope that, whatever you end up writing, it will include encouragement and hope rather than focusing exclusively on the tragedy.

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  6. I guess I would wonder if suicides at an institution are a reflection of a bad or hostile environment, are reflections of a stressful education in the absence of a hostile environment (but with insufficient environmental means to help before something bad happens) or if they have not much to do with the (particular) graduate school environment (whether or not the school says so). If a problem is present, then the general convention not to report on suicide may make it less likely that those problems will be fixed before someone else gets hurt. It also makes it difficult for information on what a school should do to help (and information on how effective specific actions are at preventing suicide or minimizing its precursors) to get around, and it seems like it would be isolating for people around - are they alone in seeing this happen? It also makes it hard for potential graduate students to evaluate the environment they're entering, and to possibly prepare countermeasures for their own safety.

    I don't know. I think I'd be hesitant to say anything if I thought what I say could help encourage someone to kill themselves. I worry, though, that the convention of silence is not likely to help reduce suicide. Bad things grow in the dark.

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  7. Unless you have first hand knowledge of the cause, why would you think about writing on this subject? Do you know the cause of these tragic deaths were due to the stress of graduate school? How would you know they weren't caused by other stresses or other outside influences? Seems very odd you would want to "report" on these outside of bringing some sort of dark cloud over the institution. Again, unless you have first-hand knowledge of the entire situation, not sure why one would even try and speculate.

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    1. I think it would be an expression of our chemistry community. We often see obituary-type stories for chemists who pass away. First hand knowledge is not required to report on a topic.

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    2. Seems that the "ask" is more than just writing an obituary-type story. If it's just an obit no worries, if it's a statement (or question) of cause, then first-hand knowledge would be required.

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  8. Tough topic. I would only add that the mental health effects can remain even after successfully defending a thesis or completing a post-doc appointment.

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  9. It's almost like someone needs to set up a 'CIA memorial wall' for grad students in academia who surcumb to suicide. (Read: stars carved into a marble wall for KIA CIA operatives, but for chemists).

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    1. huh, had not considered that. (Probably wouldn't do it?)

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    2. Seems like the right sentiment but don't think it sends the right message. Chemistry is so small that, i feel, anyone in the field, hears about what happens even without media coverage. Assuming what I know is the same as what you know. I hope it is, otherwise we've doubled in numbers. =X

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  10. To kinda repeat what others have already said: unless you know that they were suicides, and that the families are OK with you bringing that up if they themselves haven't already done so. As has been said already - it is hard to parse out whether someone had pre-existing mental health issues and if it was grad school itself that "caused" the suicide.

    http://www.emorycaresforyou.emory.edu/resources/suicidestatistics.html
    Unfortunately, a lot of young people (especially men) do think about or attempt to kill themselves. I'm not sure it's a problem specific to grad school.

    From what I know about a recent suicide (that I think you're referring to) - I heard that colleagues were aware the person in question was unwell and tried to help them. I'm not sure what angle you want to put on the news by disclosing it. Are Depts/universities/PIs failing their suicidal students? Is grad school itself a trigger? Are there better ways to support grad students' mental health? Presumably we can have these kinds of discussions without naming names.

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    1. I appreciate this comment a lot. Thank you.

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  11. Just because we don't know every single detail about the situation doesn't mean it's not worth reporting. That is a lame excuse. People ask what is the benefit of discussing but I ask, what is the benefit of keeping it in the dark (besides "protecting" PI/institution reputation? The questions brought by St. Andrews Lynx are important. Maybe putting it in the light can help some people realize they are not alone and point them to help.

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    1. "Lame excuse"? It's a prudent excuse. Otherwise you start getting comments like we've already heard here - "I heard from colleagues..." "I heard it from a labmate who took the bus..." These aren't exactly reliable sources to make a story out of. Also, you'll most likely start getting the "department sweeping it under the rug" comments when you may not know whether that's true or not. Unfortunately people commit suicide for a variety of reasons, and unless there is a note saying I did it because of the stresses of grad school, PI, etc., any interpretation would be seriously flawed. Hope no one conducts there research in this manner.

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    2. It's a suicide, you're NEVER going to have all the details is my point, hence the choice of word. If that was the case we wouldn't talk about anything.

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  12. As St. Andrews said, if your work could address the general questions of "Are Depts/universities/PIs failing their suicidal students? Is grad school itself a trigger? Are there better ways to support grad students' mental health?" without being specific about any one situation, then great.

    However, if things are being swept under the rug, profs are turning a blind eye to mental health, etc., then bringing to light specific situations may help to address the overall problems. Just as long as more victims (ie the families) are not created in the process. Easy to say, hard to do.

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  13. Sadly, this is far more common than we expect; I've lost two friends (not in chemistry) to suicide. When I was in graduate school, there was an incident where a student tried to commit suicide by consuming thallium. This incident was kept under wraps by the university - I only heard about it from a labmate who used to take the bus with the student. I believe the student was later sent back to his home country; unfortunately, the faculty at my department tended to have a rather Darwinian view on graduate studies, viewing it as "survivial of the fittest", and just leaving the students to weed themselves out.

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  14. I'm a chemist working on a collaborative project with someone in Arts & Humanities to try to find ways of toning down this "all or nothing" rhetoric that seems to plague modern students. For example, grad students feel that if they don't get the experiment to work, they won't publish, then they won't get a good postdoc, job, etc etc. Similarly, my undergrads are so crippled by the fear of failing that they won't even make an attempt at success. In academia, we convince ourselves that our "legacies" mean anything at all and that we're failures if we don't have tenure by 35 at an R1. The problem with setting such unreasonably high expectations is that there are so many factors outside of our control that can derail our idealized 10-year plans. The biggest challenge is getting people to believe that failure is not the end of the world and that there are multiple paths to happiness, not all of which involve six-figure salaries or tenured positions.

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  15. I think for one, many PI's while being good scientists have no business mentoring anyone. They create this environment of "make me happy or you wont get a good reference", ultimately having half of their students fearing that if they don't get something to work, they will be seen as failures, not get a good reference, and ultimately have no future. I think a lot of PI's like this pressure cooker environment as everyone is constantly producing, or at least trying to, and ultimately, they benefit at the cost of their group members.

    I think for the most part, being prone to some level of depression is just part of the human condition, but being in grad school/postdoc puts you under constant pressure for such a long time that it becomes hard to see beyond it for some people.

    Universities need to be put under pressure to make sure incoming PI's (and existing ones) get some actual management training. Just because you were lucky enough to get on some high profile papers in your postdoc and got a faculty job does not make you qualified to manage people, who by the nature of the work, are under stressful circumstances.

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  16. I had my issues in graduate school as well. It wasn't suicidal thoughts per see but the STRONG urge to quit. There is something about setting up four to five reactions per day, doing multiple flash columns, taking NMR's and finding out that your reaction did not work, your product degraded, you formed the WRONG product or you keep getting a HUGE excess of some stubborn byproduct that is destroying your holy grail of 95% yield or greater. Even worse, thoughts continuously run through you head that if "this stuff" doesn't work then you will not graduate. Then, if you do not graduate, you will not get a good job. If you don't get a good job, then you and your parents etc. will see you as a complete failure. Not to mention, you've probably already wasted 3 years of your life by now making poverty/slave wages while pushing 30 years of age. Most graduate students are like boxers in a boxing match. A failed reaction is like getting hit on the chin and dropped. The thoughts running through their minds about total failure is that referee slowly but surely counting to 10. Instead of sitting there for two seconds and THEN attempting to rise off of the canvas, a typical grad. student will JUMP UP, while still woozy and dizzy and have a go a their opponent again only to get clocked and dropped yet again. Thoughts of defeat start to set in and they jump up yet again only to get dropped and Ko'ed for the 10 count. This is the point where grad students get suicidal and have thoughts of giving up. I've been there before. There is something about human nature that is averse to failure. Failing a few times is fine but in an academic environment where you are being judged by your peers where you seek the respect (and recommendation) of your P.I. and thesis committee, you seriously begin to doubt yourself. In an Ivy League environment with so called "Legacy students" where they feel that must "live up to" the stigma that they "will succeed above the rest", failure becomes even scarier. In the end, even if you don't get the glamorous job or that "stellar" thesis that you were dreaming of, realize that graduate school in the sciences teaches you a hard lesson. When you get punched in the mouth in life, sit there for two seconds..shake off the cobwebs and think about WHY you failed instead of jumping up at the "one second" count while still woozy and trying to be a "gunslinger". Write out reaction mechanisms, search SciFinder while looking for alternative methods and them ask your P.I. what he thinks of your solution. THEN, once the referee's count hits 2 or 3, you can pull yourself off of the canvas and fight again. I failed to mention that some P.I.'s are just rough as well. The expectations of their students is unnecessarily rough. Some want you in the lab 80+ hours a week and they want REAL, publishable progress within short periods of time or you are kicked out of the group. You can usually tell who these gung-ho P.I. types are. They typically publish an obscene number of papers per YEAR and their current grad. students only leave the lab to eat or take restroom breaks. I think every person deciding to enter graduate school or pursue science as a career should have a backup plan just in case you "get knocked out" and have to retire and find a new career.

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    1. 100% agreed. The importance of the backup plan cannot be overstated. I firmly believe in the old saying that your first "real" job is the most important one that you'll ever have. I've seen a lot of people go to a Fortune 50 company or get a faculty position, then get laid off or be denied tenure. In most cases, these folks have been able to transition to another career based on the fact that they worked for Big Company X or were a "smart ex-professor". By contrast, I've known people who immediately got jobs as temps and have struggled to build a solid resume. I'm not saying it's fair or rational, just that it happens. An old grad school buddy of mine got fed up with his advisor and decided to leave grad school, but he was smart and secured a job at a regional coatings company doing formulation work before leaving. He'll never win a Nobel prize or be a highly-cited author, but he's the first to admit that he's happy getting his weekends off and spending time hunting and fishing. He often equates leaving academia to leaving a cult. While he was there, he always felt guilty and saw himself as a second-rate, second-class citizen. A few years after leaving, he just shakes his head at self-important academics (myself included) and the broken, exploitative system that we've created for ourselves.

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    2. All good points, but you should also mention the enormous influence of the PI on the well-being of the grad student/post-doc. My experience as a post-doc with a big name PI at an East Coast Ivy League school marked me for life and nearly pushed me into a nervous breakdown. The PI in question used blackmail as a management tool by threatening to write a poor or even damning reference. This, combined with the difficulties and disappointments of day-to-day bench work, caused me unbearable distress and anxiety as I feared I would not get a job afterwards. Needless to say, I have nothing but contempt for the man now.

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  17. The word "potentially" due to suicide makes this decision especially difficult- this is not always easy to confirm, for many of the privacy reasons you cite. The deeply personal nature of the loss also means that even when the cause is privately known, information may travel slowly among tight networks and not be intended as public confirmation.

    This isn't to defend the culture of some academic departments, but the reasons for a student death to fly under the radar are complex. There have been prominent cases that garnered media attention by focusing closely on one department (notably Harvard), but it's hard to pin down solid numbers when students move between institutions and may even be a part of multiple departments. (where do you count the suicide of a new postdoc, or of a student whose interdisciplinary lab just moved institutions? How *many* suicides get counted if each department reports the loss to affected friends and colleagues? And no, those aren't hypotheticals)

    This is a genuinely difficult problem for many reasons- not the least of which being that systemic issues don't lend themselves to a single narrative. That's what makes some of your previous posts on the subject so worth sharing- each of these losses is a loss to the entire community, and finding ways to come together and discuss the problem is a continual challenge.

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  18. For the benefit of those of us who have been out of grad school long enough to not know any current students/postdocs, can someone at least say which departments we're talking about?

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    1. For the purposes of focusing the discussion on "what I should do?", I'd prefer that we not focus on the individual case.

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  19. Reporting is troublesome (as argued well in this discussion). Unfortunately, a lack of reporting also is problematic since it prevents the aggregation of data that can point to a department or institution actually being an issue. It's probably best not to report it as general "news", but you can use your (even second-, third-, or nth-hand) knowledge of the incidents to help others.

    One important thing you can do, if you were once a member of that institution (undergrad, grad student, postdoc, faculty, whatever), is to directly and formally ask the department/school what resources they provide for students in need. If they don't give a satisfactory answer, let them know that word of mouth is potentially giving them a reputation (news travels fast in the incestuous circles of chemistry, as we all know) and if they are not providing free, confidential counseling and support to their workers, they should. Additionally, if they are providing these options, the department should make sure that students are aware of these services early and often.

    Any department that is "very prominent" has the ability to provide these services. The typical age and common life experiences of the graduate student or postdoc (or even new faculty member) can often lead to the new or further development of mental health issues that can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions. Even if graduate school is not THE cause, it could be A cause. Having a real mental health support network is not an admission of guilt, but simply a sign that you care about the wellbeing of your students/employees.

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  20. Just a few anecdotes relevant to the topic.

    When I was doing my Ph.D. I worked with different cyanide compounds. At one point I couldn't find these reagents and found out they were now under lock and key. The reason was that my advisor had returned from Europe where a lab member there had killed themselves with cyanide.

    Also in Europe is the story of Norman Zarcone, some of which you can read about in this recent Globe and Mail article.
    http://www.globeinvestor.com/servlet/ArticleNews/story/GAM/20161126/RBIBCOVEREUROJOBS

    I would echo some of the thoughts that have been expressed by other people here regarding excessive pressure to produce results and lack of support. The latter point has several facets including institutional resources (counselling, quality career advice), advisor availability and encouragement, adequate research support, and money.

    The Globe article focussed on lack of jobs and money as the factors which drove Norman Zarcone to suicide. As a post-doc with very low pay living in a very expensive city, I can definitely relate to this.

    I love science and really would like to continue doing research in academia, industry, or government, but I have serious doubts if this is possible and worry about finding any work that would pay reasonably well, say above 50K.

    I hate to be negative, but I would advise anyone thinking of heading into a science career to do some serious research and really only proceed if they are very high achieving. Having said that, I'm not sure there any "safe" careers anymore.

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  21. Several years ago I was doing postdoc with a very well known chemistry professor at a top school in the US. One graduate student in the lab was obviously in a very poor mental state, so at some point I pulled her aside, and talked to her. She confessed to me that she has been contemplating suicide for quite some time, so I convinced her to seek professional help. When I reported this situation to our advisor, politely asking him to be more mindful with the pressures he puts on his graduate students, his response was quick and sobering: "Messing with my mentoring style is the easiest way to end your own career in chemistry". I do understand that building up mental stability is a big part of graduate school, but I still suspect there may exist routes that do not involve human sacrifices. There is a very fine line between provoking copycat suicides and pretending the problem doesn't exist at all.

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