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early career researchers

Sharing & talking isn’t enough – we need a change in culture around mental illness

Sharing & talking isn’t enough – we need a change in culture around mental illness

The EGU Early Career Scientists’ (ECS) Great Debates offer early career scientists at the EGU General Assembly the chance to network and voice their opinions on important topics in the format of round-table discussions. At the end of the debate, each table delivers a statement that summarises the discussion and recommendations. By publishing the results, we hope to highlight some of the needs of the EGU ECS community and how these matters should be addressed.

Early career scientists (ECS) demand more open and honest discussions around mental health in academia to combat stigma and create supportive environments – they also acknowledge that, while their own approaches are part of the change, assistance from the top is required as well.

At this year’s ECS Great Debate, the topic was mental wellbeing.  The main question was “How can Early Career Scientists prioritise their mental wellbeing?”, which was discussed by almost 100 participants – mostly ECS but this topic is relevant to everyone. To guide our debate of this very broad topic we focused on two aspects:

  1. What can ECS do themselves
  2. What support would ECS like to see from institutions

Even though this is a very personal topic, we could have discussed both aspects all night, and in fact just having the topic in the General Assembly programme sparked debates during the week. I’m grateful that all participants debating this topic with us felt safe to share some very personal stories.

Early career scientists having round-table discussions on mental wellbeing in research and academia at the EGU General Assembly 2019.

Approximately one in four people will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime – this number is even higher for PhD students, early career scientists and academics. This means it is time to discuss this aspect of research life more openly, not only to provide support but also to reduce the stigma around mental illness and ensure it does not turn into career enders. By openly discussing all aspects of research careers, we make certain that diversity is celebrated and ECS feel supported.

Increasing demands on researchers, highly competitive working environments, uncertain career paths and expected relocations were some of the challenges highlighted at the event that can impact ECS mental wellbeing. As ECS face these challenges, it is important to find ways to protect and care for oneself to ensure that mental health is not ignored and that ECS feel supported to seek help or guidance if they encounter mental health issues. The top tips from the ECS debating this topic can be summarised in three key themes:

  1. Be more than your research: have hobbies and find communities outside your lab or office. This helps to find perspective, get additional assistance or just to distract yourself. This can be difficult if you are new to a research group and have to relocate regularly. This is where online communities can be very helpful as they provide support and local knowledge irrespective of physical location.
  2. Be kind to yourself: selfcare is important, so know your limits and don’t fall down the trap of overworking; work smarter not harder. Take regular stock of your achievements, such as a DONE list rather than a To-Do list. It can be tempting to compete with your colleagues who is in the office first and who ends up staying the longest, but are all these hours productive? Figure out your best times to be productive and let the flexible working hours of academia work for you.
  3. Share with others and learn to be an ally: it’s ok to not be ok; we play a part in sharing this to help to create a more open, accepting environment. It’s not only about speaking openly about your own mental health but it’s also about listening without judgement when others share their experiences – this allows supportive environments to flourish. In this kind of space, everyone can feel comfortable to share their experiences, worries and fears, as well as celebrate successes, good practices and support.

These are big asks, and it was acknowledged that a supportive workspace environment is also key to allow researchers to look after their mental wellbeing. Institutions have a key role in creating and maintaining the right kind of working environment and office culture. Stigma around mental illness is probably the biggest barrier, and employers have to do more to both reduce the stigma and foster kind, safe and judgment-free office environments. Offering awareness training and handing out phone numbers for support or help lines is a start but not enough. ECS listed these things as key actions they would like to see implemented to create supportive environments:

  1. Specialised training and guidance for supervisors and managers: These kinds of workshops should not only teach employers how to identify needs and offer help but also how to raise awareness and create a more open working culture.
  2. Open discussions (such as coffee mornings or discussion groups) should be encouraged by institutions across all career stages to allow people to share their experiences.
  3. Celebration of available support: far too often finding guidance or the right person to talk to is a difficult task, especially when you are in crisis or difficult situation. Raising awareness and celebrating support programs provided by institutions and other organisations can make it easier for people to reach out and get help at the right time.
  4. Research culture changes: work environments that bolster and celebrate diversity are key for ensuring that ECS feel supported.

The overarching theme of the debate was that mental health management cannot be left to the individuals alone, but instead together we can all play our part in making sure our work environments become more accepting, less judgmental and truly value diversity.

By Stephanie Zihms, lecturer in researcher development, University of the West of Scotland, UK 

If you are looking for someone to talk to or resources, here are some phone numbers and websites:

UK:

Samaritans: 08457 909090
Abuse Not: 0808 8005015
Brook Young People’s Information Service: 0800 0185023
Eating Disorder Support: 01494 793223
Anxiety UK: 0844 477 5774
Depression Alliance: 0845 123 23 20
Rape Crisis Centre: 01708 765200
Rape/sexual assault: 0808 8000 123 (female) or 0808 8000122 (male)
Miscarriage Association: 01924 200799
LLGS Helpline (LGBT): 0300 330 0630

Germany:

TelefonSeelsorge Deutschland: 0800 111 0 111 or 0800 11 0 222
https://www.telefonseelsorge.de/?q=node/6293

China:

Helpline 1: Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center Hotline: 800-810-1117 or 010-82951332
Helpline 2: Lifeline Shanghai: (english-speaking) (021) 6279 8990
Website: http://www.lifeline-shanghai.com
Helpline 3: Shanghai Mental Health Center: 021-64387250

Italy:

Helpline 1: 199 284 284
Website: http://www2.telefonoamico.it/

France:

Helpline 1: (+33) (0)9 51 11 61 30
Website: https://www.sos-amitie.org/

USA:

Lifeline: 13 11 14
Depression Hotline: 1-630-482-9696
Suicide Hotline: 1-800-784-8433
LifeLine: 1-800-273-8255
Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
Sexuality Support: 1-800-246-7743
Eating Disorders Hotline: 1-847-831-3438
Grief Support: 1-650-321-5272

Austria:

Helpline 1: 142
Website: http://www.telefonseelsorge.at/

Krisenhilfe: 0732 2177

Switzerland:

Die Dargebotene Hand (Schweiz) phone 143 or https://www.143.ch

Netherlands:

Helpline 1: 0900-0767
Website: https://www.deluisterlijn.nl/

Collection of helpline numbers around the world:

https://togetherweare-strong.tumblr.com/helpline

Coping tips:

https://www.rethink.org/diagnosis-treatment/symptoms/suicidal-thoughts/today

Resources to be a better ally:

https://www.time-to-change.org.uk
http://www.sane.org.uk
https://www.wie-gehts-dir.ch/de/

GeoTalk: Meet the EGU’s president, Alberto Montanari

GeoTalk: Meet the EGU’s president, Alberto Montanari

GeoTalk interviews usually feature the work of early career researchers, but this month we deviate from the standard format to speak to Alberto Montanari, president of the EGU. Alberto has a long-standing involvement with the Union, stretching back more than 15 years. Following a year as vice-president, Alberto was appointed president at this year’s General Assembly in Vienna. Here we talk to him about his plans for the Union and how the science community can get involved, European integration for the benefit of scientific research, and placing value on scientific initiatives that are hard to measure.

In case some of our readers don’t know who you are, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your career path so far and your involvement with the EGU over the years?

I have been a professor of water engineering and hydrology at the University of Bologna since 2001. My background is civil engineering. After finishing my master’s degree my thesis advisor suggested that I attend a PhD program. He pushed me to pursue an international vision in my research activity, something that was not frequent in Italy in the early nineties. At the time I could not communicate in English, even reading papers was a challenge for me. In 1994 I attended my first General Assembly of the European Geophysical Society (which later merged into EGU). It was love at the first glance! I was so excited by my first experience that I did not miss any EGS/EGU General Assemblies since then. Once I got a permanent position as a professor, I felt motivated to contribute to the development of EGU, to give back what I received. I served as president of the Hydrological Sciences Division, chair of the Awards Committee and now I am serving as the Union president. Let me say that EGU is great, and I am thankful to those brilliant scientists who created it! If you asked me what has been the most difficult challenge in my career so far, I would say that it was (and still is!!) to communicate in the English language 🙂

At this year’s General Assembly, you were appointed Union president (after serving as vice-president for a year). What are the main things you hope to achieve during your two-year term?

I identified a few keywords to summarize my wishes for the future of EGU:

  1. diversity and equality of opportunities,
  2. visibility of Earth, space and planetary sciences,
  3. European integration, and
  4. early career scientists.

With regard to 1, I would like to encourage diversity in the widest sense. A diverse community and diversity of opinions are vital for promoting science. As for 2, I would like to involve excellent communicators as EGU ambassadors by giving dedicated recognitions. Issue 3 is essential for promoting European and global research. At the EGU General Assembly 2019 we organized an excellent conversation on European integration with Former Italian Parliamentarian Ilaria Capua and Former Italian Prime Minister and European Commissioner Mario Monti. The amazing attendance at that event was a clear sign that many researchers were interested in the topic and that we need to follow up with more events. Finally, with regards to 4, let me say that early career scientists are the lifeblood of the Union. I am motivated to promote their efforts and amplify their voice more and more, with dedicated initiatives.

Why these in particular?

During my service with EGU I tried to listen to people as much as possible. I collected an uncountable set of opinions and views. After speaking with colleagues – and early career scientists in particular – the above keywords clearly came forward. I am happy to say that I meet an impressive number of interesting people involved with EGU and during the EGU meetings. I am motivated to further increase my efforts to speak with the community. I encourage colleagues to contact me!

EGU President, stand along side Amanda Maycock, recipient of the 2019 Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists. Credit: EGU/Pflugel

Last month, the EGU Council issued a declaration supporting a united Europe for the benefit of global scientific research and condemning “fake news”, biased reporting, social media bots and malicious state actors which threaten European integration. Why are these forces so troubling and, in your opinion, what can Union members do to address the challenges that a united Europe and scientific research face?

As I said, I firmly believe in European integration. A strong EU is beneficial to scientific research and societal development. However, such benefits are not so evident to people. I think one of the reasons is the complexity of modern society. It is a challenge for the public to understand how economy and politics work. Therefore, people hardly agree with forward looking political decisions and are tempted to support short-term strategies.

The same happens in science. Sometimes scientists speak in a language that cannot be easily understood, and therefore people are not supportive of inconvenient truths that may look obscure. In such situations fake news stories easily proliferate because they easily address people’s skepticism and concern. Such stories offer an apparently easy solution, but actually they mislead people and threaten scientific integrity and democracy. Politicians and scientists are partly responsible for this situation: sometimes they seek immediate consensus instead of looking forward and promoting transparency.

What can we do to be more constructive? At the EGU General Assembly 2019 Mario Monti replied to a question by former EGU President Günter Blöschl by suggesting, “Be yourself and tell surrounding people who you are and how the EU relates to you. And what aspects in your activity would not be there, or not be there so productively, if the EU was not there [or] if the EU was undermined”. I cannot agree more. I would additionally suggest to make it simple. Let’s use an accessible language to summarise the positive feedbacks that a strong EU and collaborative science can deliver to Europeans. Last but not least, we have to welcome diversity with a constructive attitude. Diversity – including diversity of opinions – makes science more transparent and more convincing.

On a similar note, At the EGU General Assembly 2019, you also convened a session on rewards and recognition in science for contributions that cannot be easily measured, such as engaging with the public and policy makers. In your opinion, how can the science community properly credit such contributions that are sometimes less tangible than publications, citations and grants?

I believe that the current system for academic recognition suffers from many shortcomings. Citations and bibliometric indexes give a far incomplete picture of the value of one’s contribution. We need to devise efficient methods for measuring the value of other activities, like teaching and participatory work in the community. Finally, let me quote Demetris Koutsoyiannis, a professor at the Technical University of Athens, who, in the conclusions of his talk during the above session, pointed out that “Metrics can serve as thresholds and shortlisting criteria. They are not sufficient to support final decisions, which should move away from the ‘audit culture’”.

The EGU is a bottom-up organization run primarily by its members. We’ve discussed what the Union hopes to do for its members, so I’d now like to ask how the EGU membership can take a more active role in the Union’s activities?

EGU is like a family; everyone has a role. EGU would not exist without each individual contribution. Any single person attending EGU activities is important. It is easy to get involved in EGU: just contact the relevant division president or myself. EGU is very open, and any member is welcome to test this openness; just send an email to propose your own ideas!

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer