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The Status of Mental Health in Planetary Science

January 29, 2016

By Angela Zalucha

I meant to write this article yesterday. That’s not a statement of procrastination. I suffer from depression, which was triggered a few years ago by events directly related to my career. The symptoms of depression are different from person to person. For me, I have to go lay in bed, in silence. Tasks like getting up to heat leftover pizza up in the microwave are insurmountable. So I wasn’t exactly up to the task of writing a blog article, even if it was about the condition I suffer from.

But I’ve already talked too much about mental health for our society’s comfort. It’s strange, really. Physicians recommend yearly check-ups for they physical aspects of the body. Yet we don’t go for yearly mental health check-ups. If you break your arm, you’ll see a triage nurse, a radiologist, a clinician, and maybe a surgeon and physical therapist. Nobody tells you you shouldn’t seek treatment, and you probably aren’t going to have second thoughts about going to urgent care or the emergency room (unless you have an emotional reaction to hospitals). So why when your brain gets “injured” in a psychological way is there a stigma about seeing a medical professional? Why do I feel like I have to lie about going to therapy appointments? Why can I tell only my most trusted family and friends about my condition?

College and professional sports teams have medical professionals on staff to attend to injuries, in real time, on the field. Game play halts until that person is able to be safely removed from the game or return to play. The audience claps out of respect. The media talks about injury reports for players and how long they’ll be unable to play. As scientists, our minds are our most important trait. Where are our high-profile, professional trainers? Why don’t we get put on the injury list when our minds are hurt?

So far, it has been up to the individual to get help for themselves, not always with the critical support they need, with regards to mental issues. But after speaking out at meetings about what as I see as an epidemic of mental health illnesses in our community, total strangers came up to me and thanked me for my words. Young, old, male, female, reinforcing this idea of an epidemic. I worry for the ones who did not approach me, or the ones who aren’t even aware they might need help, what jeopardy their lives are in. As a professional society, we cannot ignore a situation that is affecting so many of its members, a crisis that impacts our most valuable asset. When our minds hurt, our productivity as a community hurts. Our shared passion hurts. Our colleagues hurt. Our friends hurt.

How are we going to solve this issue? I don’t know yet, but somebody had to mention the invisible elephant in the room. We can figure this out.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Jared Bell permalink
    March 2, 2016 10:58 am

    Dr. Zalucha, this is a wonderful piece. I also suffer from depression–mostly due to the current state of our field–but also for just plain-vanilla personality reasons. I am currently a soft-money research scientist modeling planetary atmospheres, and it’s turned out to be more of a twisted joke than a viable career path–at least in my view (which is very jaded at the moment–so please forgive the implied snarling and teeth gnashing that will inevitably be in my words below).

    It’s been about a 18 months, but I’m finally coming out of my depression sinkhole thanks to my supportive family and my primary care doctor. However, as I recover from my bout of depression (which was probably mild), the thought of spending all of my time writing proposals that have a 1/10 chance of being funded (at best) just kills all of my motivation and really has killed my passion for my work in planetary science. I used to dream of working on space and planetary science topics, now I find myself avoiding COSMOS re-runs and the Universe on Netflix because the pain and despair that I feel is just too much. My dream has become something of a nightmare–I’ve dedicated so much of my life and time to this and now it’s turning to ash in my mouth. It’s a bitter, bitter pill and one that has dragged me into darkness more than once in the last 3 years.

    Instead of dining on ashes though, I’ve decided to find my passion elsewhere. I was always interested in medicine, and I think that I’m going to go that route. There’s a ton of areas where we physicists can contribute–especially those advance scientific computing skills, the jobs are 9-5 (mostly), and the pay is excellent. Also, and this is the crazy part, the job security is fantastic. Taking classes and learning new things has re-invigorated me and made me love science again. Now, I’m studying Radiobiology and loving it… I’m teaching myself O-chem and it’s great. It’s like walking outside of the cave and seeing the blue sky and wondering why I didn’t walk out before now.

    Research wise, the medical field is in a tight spot as well, but at least, when I get rejected by NIH, I can tell myself that working to cure cancer is a worthwhile cause and worth the short-term dismay. I can also go back to doing my day job of actually treating cancer, rather than just weeping that I have to cut my salary by 50% to survive until I can maybe submit another proposal that has a 1/10 chance of getting maybe partially funded.

    I can’t say the same for planetary science anymore…. I can’t believe my own hype that I put into the proposals to hopefully convince the review panel to please, please fund me so that my kids can still live in this house and so that I can finally get a car that is not 15 years old… I just don’t have the motivation, passion, or interest anymore. Planetary Science (and probably research science in general) has drained me.

    I know that I’m not alone, and thank you for brining this very important topic up of depression and mental health up. My depression over the sad state of our field has been very painful, but I think that I am now embarking on a new scientific journey with much more stability, higher impact, and hopefully something that I’m just plain passionate about! It’s invigorating to feel life flow into me once again and have something to want to wake up to.

    I no longer dread going to the office to sit and stare at my screen thinking of all the cool things that I could be doing instead of just another proposal. I can actually DO things that will benefit people and help those around me, and if I am able to help just one person live longer or fight off cancer, then I’ve been a bigger help to humanity than I currently am trapped on the sisyphean task of writing research proposals that go nowhere.

    Thanks again for this wonderful piece and please keep posting items like this. It’s wonderful therapy for those of us who are going through similar trials. I hope that my own thoughts haven’t been too maudlin!

    Most Sincerely,

    Jared Bell

    • azalucha permalink
      March 2, 2016 11:38 am

      Thank you for your note. The more of us who are able to tell our stories, the more power we have to lift those up among us who are currently struggling.

  2. Meg Urry permalink
    February 26, 2016 4:54 pm

    Thank you very much for your excellent article, especially the way you contrasted society’s views of mental and body health. The astronomical profession should be a leader in helping to change attitudes, with help from the new AAS Working Group on Accessibility and Disability.

  3. February 14, 2016 1:09 pm

    I agree that this is an important and rarely discussed topic within our community. Mental health and wellness is critical to functioning at our best and actually enjoying life in the process. As a fellow sufferer of MDD, OCD, PTSD, (and other groups of letters) I would be very interested in being included in discussions as they move forward.

  4. Heidi Fuqua permalink
    February 14, 2016 2:10 am

    Thanks for sharing Angela. This is a very important topic. Here at UC Berkeley, ~50% of graduate students are depressed, report summary here: In response, some at Berkeley have started up an organization to help graduate students grow in their mental health and wellness, called “Thriving in Science”, There are some really good lectures video archived there. What is the climate at other universities? Perhaps we could talk in person at LPSC?

    • azalucha permalink
      February 14, 2016 2:52 pm

      I will not be at LPSC but encourage people to bring up the topic and/or form discussion groups about what we can do to help our community suffering from mental illness.

  5. January 30, 2016 5:37 pm

    Thanks for bringing forward this important topic Angela!

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