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Mental Illness/Wellness and Your Career – LPSC WiPS Event Summary 2017

June 6, 2017

Contributed by Nicolle Zellner, Mallory Kinczyk, and Lillian Ostrach

In March, the 9th Annual LPSC Women in Planetary Science Susan Niebur Networking Event was held. Holly Doggett, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Texas spoke to us about mental illness/wellness and its effect on careers. One in five American adults experiences some form of mental illness in any given year, and across the population, one in every 25 adults is living with a serious mental health condition such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or long-term recurring major depression. During her presentation, Holly told anecdotes and suggested coping strategies for instances when we might be affected by changes to our mental wellness.

First and foremost, Holly emphasized that mental illness can affect anyone at any time (common signs) – it’s not the same for everyone, no two days are the same, and our own experience(s) can look completely different at different points in life. Mental illness often has stigma and/or self-stigma connected to it, whereby we feel disgraced, discredited, shame, anger, and/or hopelessness, to name just a few. Even worse, it affects us in the workplace.

It’s important to fight stigma and treat ourselves effectively by practicing self-care. This can take on a variety of forms, from managing expectations in the workplace (e.g., setting priorities, planning ahead, and learning to say NO) to managing stress at home (e.g., avoid wasting time, take time for reflection). These methods should be complementary to taking care of yourself by exercising, getting regular sleep, practicing meditation, eating healthy, and avoiding excessive alcohol or smoking. Other coping strategies can also help. At work, it’s important to establish a support system and to have options (e.g., working from home) for those days or times when you feel your mental health is not up to par. If possible (and you feel safe doing so), let a few people in the workplace know about your medical issues and how these people can be supportive when you are in need. NAMI has compiled resources and strategies for achieving success at work.

Listed here are notes from the questions and ensuing discussion after Holly’s presentation, with link to additional resources:

    • Imposter syndrome – any insights or statistics?
      • resources compiled by the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy;
      • information about impostor syndrome and how to cope with it;
      • One of the best ways we can, as a community, overcome many of these stigmas is to show our support of others in the field. Let’s not perpetuate the imposter syndrome; we need to recognize it as an issue and move on (by supporting one another and acknowledging our accomplishments and skills).
    • Where do you start with a friend who is against getting help?
      • Stigma can be an issue so they don’t want to admit it.
      • Tell them that you are there for them, and really mean it. Ask them: Do you need me to listen? Do you need me to go to a support group with you? What is it that I can do?
      • Establish a protocol for when/if something is wrong, if they can’t talk to you but they need you. Admitting to someone, “I’m depressed,” “I’m having a really hard time,” or similar, can be hard to say out loud. Holly mentioned part of her protocol is that she and her husband have a “code word” she uses when she needs his support and help.
      • NAMI has caregiver training to understand how to help, so contact your local NAMI agency for information.
    • What is the best way to set up a supportive work environment? It sounds like the responsibility is on the person with the illness.
      • Wellness programs can be developed at work, and they can incorporate both physical and mental wellness activities.
      • Provide an overall environment where people feel supported.
      • Provide healthy snacks in the break room.
      • Host brownbag lunches on mindfulness.
      • Put out coloring sheets that people can use for a “mental break”.
      • Give people the opportunity to tell you what they need for support anonymously.
    • We all get bad sleep because we work on our own time. Is it better to get into a routine? Or to be easier on yourself and work late/get up late?
      • Sleep is important – you never catch up on sleep – and routine is very important.
      • If you know that you’re going to pull an all-nighter, know that your body is never going to recover. However, there are things you can do to help your body recover (e.g., massage!). Think about how to take better care of yourself once the project is done.
    • When you are having an episode, what are some of the strategies to get yourself out besides talking to other people? What are some things you can do for yourself in the moment?
      • Don’t feel guilty.
      • Have/find/borrow a pet!! Bury your face in their fur. It works really well.
      • If people know you and you don’t have to explain the back story, have that person who knows you well and you can just tell them that it’s one of those times.
      • Who is that support system for you?
    • How can we coach others on maintaining their mental health when you observe negative behavior?
      • “It seems like you’re having some trouble focusing…is there something you’d like to talk about?”
      • Give them the opportunity to share.
      • Give them permission to talk to you about what is going on. This shows that you care enough to listen.
      • Know that there are resources and it’s okay to share them.
      • Sharing personal experience(s) can allow people to open up.
    • It would be great to hear from some seasoned scientists about how to cope with the emotional stressors of graduate school especially since so many graduate students struggle with depression.
      • Faculty member: A good advisor cares about the mental health of his/her lab members and says it’s okay if you’re struggling as long as you’re passionate and you have the skills to do research.
      • Faculty member: A good advisor asks how his/her students are doing and what s/he can do to help them.
      • Lillian Ostrach: Graduate school is full of trauma, and we need to recognize that and be supportive of each other. Graduate school is often very isolating and it can be easy to think that you’re the only one experiencing whatever it is, but I guarantee you that you aren’t alone. I am happy to be part of a support system for anyone here, so feel free to contact me. Several years ago, I wrote a blog post on WIPS about how I approach the stressors of graduate school, and my approach is based on a passage in one of Tamora Pierce’s books that strongly influenced me. The gist of the passage is incredibly meaningful and essentially boils down to:
        • You’re never going to be able to do all of the work that you’re given, so do what you can and move on.
        • There’s always going to be more work to do (and people smarter than you, people who can work faster than you, etc.) and the “pile” of work is never going to go away.
        • Guard your personal time, because the truth is that very little harm will usually come from delaying doing more work.
    • It’s ok to say that you have a mental illness. The more we connect with each other, the more we make progress.
      • Some people say this to themselves, “I don’t want to tell my story because you don’t understand.” We tend to disconnect because of shame and stigma, and mental illness colors the way we view ourselves. Instead, build connections in a positive way so that when you need them in bad times they are there.
      • Check to see if there are grad school or mental health Facebook group support systems.
      • The AAS Working Group on Accessibility and Disability may be an additional source of resources for you.

Holly’s final words to us? At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many awards you win or what papers you write. We’re all human so take care of yourself and the people in your life.

Additional resources from NAMI

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. astrodivanz permalink
    July 12, 2017 6:35 pm

    NBC Nightly News ran this story tonight:

    We should all try this at one time or another!

  2. Ingrid Daubar permalink
    June 21, 2017 9:56 am

    This was a really good topic and talk, thanks to the organizers and speaker.

    Does anyone know of a flyer or poster we could post in the bathrooms/on office doors/etc.? I thought this was a good suggestion that came up at the talk, but I’ve looked around on the NAMI websites & can’t find one. I’m thinking something with information like this page (https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/NAMI-HelpLine) in flyer form. I can make one, just wondering if it already exists somewhere. Thanks!

    • astrodivanz permalink
      June 29, 2017 10:03 am

      I am not aware of any ready-made poster or flyer. If you make one, feel free to share it here.

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