The importance of a healthy mind in research: A guide to the available resources to achieve mental wellness

In the past few years the number of individuals suffering from mental health issues has been rising throughout society. It has become clearer that young students, doctoral researchers and postdocs are affected by constant stress and struggle with mental health problems similar to those in other top performance jobs.

by Aida Ahmadi and Maria Eichel

The Offspring has featured articles about the history of melancholy and depression, mental health issues prevalent amongst PhD candidates, and most recently showcased a one-day workshop offered by the Max Planck Society regarding how mental health at top performance is addressed. In this article, we want to raise further awareness about this important topic by giving best-case examples of what universities, institutes, employers and employees can do to improve the situation. Often, people experiencing a decline in their mental well-being find it difficult to seek help - be it due to social stigma, lack of cultural knowledge, inadequate resources, or any other reason. We would like to shed some light on what can be done to improve the situation. In a university town like Göttingen that has a high number of students, scientists, and medical employees, and a city that is proud of the motto “Die Stadt die Wissen schafft” (“The city that creates knowledge”) one may wonder: is there a place where one can find help when feeling lost? Indeed there is; and it took us less than 5 minutes to find out where one could get assistance.

We interviewed Jens Hohmeier, a psychotherapist from the Psychotherapeutic Office for employees of the University Göttingen (PSM) as well as the Psychotherapeutic Outpatient Clinic for Students of the University of Göttingen (PAS) Both services offer counselling and psychotherapeutic help in situations of psychological problems and acute crises, and provide support in finding an outpatient psychotherapist or clinic if more intense treatment is needed. We asked Hohmeier several questions including how often doctoral students contact the PSM/PAS, how they can help, what the majority of doctoral researchers suffer from and why there is a difference between the mental health state of local and international doctoral researchers.

Since the PMS was founded in autumn 2016, an increasing number of doctoral researchers have contacted the office. They are heterogeneous when it comes to areas of expertise, nationality, university or institutes. The major reason doctoral researchers are feeling unwell is the impaired work-life balance due to the high workload and responsibility, leading mostly to depression-like symptoms. Disorientation and constant worry about the future is something most doctoral researchers mention during the sessions. Additionally, Hohmeier points out that being lonely is something quite specific for doctoral researchers compared to students or employees and one of the main reasons leading to mental health problems. At the end of a PhD, there are also occasions where students experience writer’s block, anxiety and fear of exam or talks. Of course, there are also private challenges such as family problems, broken relationships or the absence of a social safety network which could have additional impact on one’s mental wellbeing. Moreover, we discussed the big question that appears to be the central problem most doctoral researchers face: What do I want?

Science is a highly competitive field where stress is daily business as in many top performance jobs. The competition is really high and there is no guaranteed job security in science for young motivated students. Leaving academia can be an option, though often not an attractive one for those whose passion lies in research, not to mention that workload and responsibility are also high in industry. If one is interested in being a researcher, one constantly worries about being fast enough, having a high ranked paper and the right ideas at the perfect time. Over the years, an increase in the number of doctoral researchers per supervisor/professor has become apparent. Nowadays it is quite common that supervisors have more than 5 or 10 students at the same time leading to doctoral researchers being more independent and solely responsible for their own projects. While a certain degree of independence is beneficial during these crucial years for an emerging scientist, lack of mentorship can lead one astray both scientifically and professionally. The question of “What am I doing?” and “What do I actually want?” is something we all ask ourselves, especially the closer we get to the finish line. Finding answers to these questions often takes long, also when consulting professional help because in the end one has to find a personal answer.

The PSM offers private as well as group sessions. However, due to tight working schedules, doctoral researchers do not attend group meetings very often but prefer private sessions. Therefore, the PSM provides up to 10 sessions (which can always be adapted) and also supports finding a psychotherapist if there is the need for a more intense treatment. Especially for international researchers that are not familiar with the German health system, it is important to get help at this stage. With an increasing number of international students, universities and institutes have to build up a network for a closer collaboration which can ultimately lead to helpful changes for the long run. Nevertheless, Hohmeier points out that even with the increasing number of students, doctoral researchers and employees reporting mental health problems, there have also been improvements. People are becoming more open-minded when discussing mental health in public, and old taboos and conflicts are gradually broken down. Hohmeier closes with a powerful statement: “Science is similar to a highly competitive sport and one has to learn to set priorities to succeed”. Perhaps we should take his advice and try to give our mental health top priority!

So what if you don’t live in Göttingen or don’t have access to the services provided by psychotherapeutic clinics such as PSM or PAS? Our network of PhD student representatives with support from the Max Planck Society have been busy developing new measures to address issues related to mental wellbeing. The following is a summary of the current efforts:

  • A one-day workshop titled “Mental health at top performance - Stress management for doctoral researchers” was held in Munich as part of the Operational Health Management initiative. An Offspring article about the seminar can be found here 

  • A series of five four-hour long workshops spread over a month were held in Garching in June 2018 as a pilot project in collaboration with Techniker Krankenkasse (TK) and the local International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS). The in-depth series comprised of 12 doctoral researchers with “Mental Strategies for Doctoral Researchers” as the theme. The sessions focused on understanding stress and its effects, providing tools to identify personal stressors and protect oneself from stress by setting limits and accepting support. Time management and self-organisation methods as well as mindfulness and physical relaxation exercises were introduced to help prevent and manage stress more effectively.
  • A collaboration with a psychiatric out-patient clinic started in Dortmund in June 2017, with the intention to offer a weekly telephone helpline for crisis intervention for employees who find themselves in psychosocial difficulty. The anonymous and strictly confidential hotline is offered once a week for one hour. Psychologists and psychiatrists are available to answer the calls, providing support in both English and German.

  • A questionnaire is provided within the Max Planck Society to evaluate psychological stress. The document was published in chapter XVI.4.4.05 of the MPG Organisationshandbuch last year and is recommended for obtaining a first evaluation. The Environmental and Safety Representative, Dr. Christoph Kolbe, encourages all institutes to use this checklist to assess their risk of psychological stress and would be able to provide support. Some institutes that have already used the checklist are planning to organize workshops to discuss the results with their staff. The Max Planck Society and Dr. Kolbe are open to explore further courses of action for the next steps.

  • The close collaboration between the MPS and TK allows for individual institutes to create local initiatives that best fit their needs. For example, yoga or back training classes can be organized, most of the cost of which could be reimbursed.

  • The PhDnet is in the process of developing an online tool dedicated to emotional intelligence and awareness.

We hope that this article has not only raised your awareness about the importance of mental health but also inspired you to initiate some projects that could benefit you and your fellow researchers. Why not be proactive and contact your local student representatives, IMPRS coordinators or corporate health management representative to launch some of these measures at your institute?

“There is no matter as such - mind is the matrix of all matter.” - Max Planck

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