In Conversation With Dr. Monica Malta: The Mental Health Crisis In STEMM

A smiling Dr. Monica.
Dr. Monica Malta

For Mental Health Awareness Month, we kicked off a crucial, but difficult, conversation about the mental health crisis in the STEMM fields. We spoke to several women and minority researchers, scientists, and mental health professionals to dive deeper into the causes of this crisis. We also saw the dire need to offer a platform and amplify voices on this matter.

As part of our Mental Health Awareness series, we spoke with Dr. Monica Malta, who is a professor at the University of Toronto, and a scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. She is also a member of the 500 Women Scientists’ leadership team.

There is an indubitable mental health crisis in science and STEMM fields which requires immediate action. Women scientists and minorities in science are especially susceptible to these crises. What are your perspectives on this, both as a mental health professional and as a woman in STEMM yourself?

There’s indeed a mental health crisis in academia and science. Graduate students are six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the general population, with a whopping 36% of them having sought help for depression or anxiety caused by their studies. This is corroborated by other independent surveys done by individual schools: more than 40% of graduate students in STEM (degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in University of California, Berkeley are depressed, while 50% of doctoral students in University of Arizona reported high stress. The COVID-19 pandemic also, unsurprisingly, worsened the situation, with a more than 10% jump in the number of students with depression and anxiety symptoms.

As with many fields across the world, a competitive environment often leads to depression, anxiety and stress, and the field of STEM academic research has indeed become more and more competitive over the years. It is harder than ever to obtain funds or publish in high impact journals. This pressure generates many issues for the scientific community as a whole (such as increasing the tendency to avoid novel research, overestimate results’ significance, and, in more severe cases, commit research fraud), and also plays a huge role in affecting graduate students’ stress in academia.

Mental health struggles in science are still often viewed as individual weaknesses and not the result of a larger dysfunctional institutional culture where systemic racism and gender inequalities are key problems. And mental health interventions in the STEM academic community often focus on what individuals can do to improve their mental health instead of focusing on improving the institutional environment.

Many institutions have implemented ‘mental health awareness campaigns’, and that’s an interesting and valid strategy. However, until each university and lab really works to address key problems such as gender pay gaps, motherhood penalty, systemic racism, LGBTQ+ discrimination etc., those awareness campaigns serve just as a way to ‘check a to do list’.

As a mental health researcher, I think we’re missing the point. We need to really engage people with lived experiences to develop adequate, feasible and acceptable interventions. We need universities and institutions to really commit and change a highly toxic environment to work, teach and study. We need more work flexibility for breastfeeding mothers, paid sick leave for staff and faculties struggling with mental health disorders. We need free mental health care on campus that are accessible for students. We need to decrease the level of stigma and discrimination that surrounds mental health disorders, in order to make mental health care more acceptable and easy.

Mental health is health. But somehow we’re forgetting this as individuals and most importantly as institutions.

There is dire mental health crisis in STEMM: women and minorities are especially susceptible. (Credit: Unsplash)

What are the key facets that are contributing to this crisis in science & STEMM fields?

There are many problems influencing the high prevalence of mental health disorders in science. But key aspects include a highly competitive environment where each student and professor struggle with an enormous pressure to publish (or perish) and receive grants, while high impact journals tend to be highly selective and funding agencies have seen a flat increment on their annual budget while the number of people applying for grants have steadily increased… If you think about PhD students, lack of financial stability and job security are key problems. For instance, in the US PhD students earn between $15,000 and $30,000 a year depending on their institution, field of study, and location — while working for more than 41 hours a week!

Bullying and harassment are widespread in our field and frequently perpetrators are not held accountable, especially if they are senior scientists with a large portfolio of funded research… People of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ persons, and women are frequently subjected to increased levels of bullying and harassment. In February 2020, Nature journal conducted a survey with more than 7,600 postdoctoral scientists from 93 countries. Among then, 74% observed power imbalances and/or bullying, 43% saw gender discrimination and 37% observed racial discrimination or harassment.

We need perpetrators to be held accountable. We need a shift in institutional culture that really listens and supports survivors. This highly toxic environment is taking a heavy toll on the next generation of scientists, and many are opting out of academia. If academia continues to be a place where white, old, cis, heterosexual males are the ones dictating norms and making decisions, unfortunately we won’t see any change in the near future. Academia needs changes, and it needs to change now.

“We need a shift in the institutional culture.” (Credit: Unsplash)

What is your advice for prioritizing and ameliorating mental health for women scientists, researchers (and minorities) in science/STEMM?

We need a change in the academic culture and a true commitment of institutions to tackle deeply entrenched problems. We need diversity in leadership, we need more Black and Brown faculty members. We need more women and LGBTQ+ persons in positions of power. We need affirmative actions polices to attract and retain diverse students in the STEM disciplines. And to do so, institutions need to offer a non-toxic and supportive environment. Institutions need to include people with lived experiences in the development and implementations of mental health awareness campaigns and interventions.

Mental awareness campaigns are interesting, but they fall short. Universities, labs and other STEM organizations need to go beyond that. We need to promote a working environment where mental health treatment is viewed as a health treatment like any other.

Students should have access to 24/7 crisis support. Suicide attempts are rising — depression, anxiety, PTSD etc., are highly prevalent on campus. Each institution should offer free or at least subsidized counseling and treatment to their students, staff and faculty members.

Without strong investment and commitment to go beyond timely campaigns, the mental health crisis we are seeing today in academia won’t be addressed at all.

What steps do we take as individuals to increase mental health awareness?

We should talk more about the importance of mental health. If you feel comfortable with sharing your own struggles, please do so. If you experienced bullying, harassment, power imbalance etc., please look for support.

If you are a member of a marginalized group, look for a supportive environment. If there is no support group, think about creating one for your community. One person might be too fragile to denounce an abusive mentor or a toxic environment, but an entire group can work together to create awareness and demand overdue changes.

For those who use frequently social media, speak about mental health. Talk about the importance of working/studying in a safe and supportive environment, share your suggestions to improve your lab/university/college. If we all talk as freely about mental illness as we have been talking about COVID-19, we will all be fighting the stigma surrounding mental illness. We should all remember that mental health is health.

Art Credit: “Digits of unity” by V. S. Rakenduvadhana for 500WS

The Mental Health Awareness campaign and interviews were conceived and conducted by 500 Women Scientists’ leadership team member Rakenduvadhana Srinivasan.

Rakenduvadhana Srinivasan (she/her) is a neuroscientist based in Helsinki, Finland. Her doctoral research focuses on the effects of acute neuroinflammation on hippocampal function. She is also a writer and artist among other things.

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