Researcher Engagement

Why Researcher Mental Health is Important for Academic Societies

Researchers grapple with intense competition, burnout, difficulties in balancing work and home life, inadequate supervision, and a non-supportive work environment. Several studies have shone the flashlight on the “mental health crisis” in the academic community. Compared to the general public, graduate students have been found to be over six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety. Another study showed that over 15% PhD scholars contend with moderate to severe depressive symptoms, and four in ten scholars experience anxiety. A recent survey investigating the mental health of PhD students at a German university showed that an alarming one-third of the participants were above the cut-off for depression. Yet another survey of over 13,000 researchers from 160+ countries by Cactus Communications showed high levels of stress, linked to working conditions, productivity expectations, and toxic academia culture.  

On the bright side, in recent years, open and candid discussions about mental health issues have become increasingly prevalent, and organizations are acknowledging their roles in assisting members or employees in maintaining their mental health. Academic societies are recognizing the importance of addressing mental health concerns among their members, implementing various initiatives to provide support and resources. By prioritizing researcher mental health, academic societies can help create a more supportive and inclusive environment that encourages collaboration and innovation.

Why academic societies should be invested in researcher mental health

Mental well-being safeguards creativity, productivity, and efficiency. Researcher mental health is therefore an important facet that guarantees that researchers contribute meaningfully to academia. It is worth noting that the mental health crisis has repercussions on the academic community as a whole, which may take the form of decreased productivity and even attrition, ultimately translating into a loss of valuable talent.

Mental health is a social responsibility. Researchers deserve to work in an environment that respects their dignity, autonomy, and diversity. They should have access to resources and support that promote their mental health and well-being. They should also be able to seek help without fear of stigma or discrimination.

Academic societies can serve as effective catalysts to mobilize change and foster a culture conducive to the mental health of their members. This not only benefits the researchers themselves but also enhances the reputation and impact of the academic society and the quality of research it produces. For researchers to thrive both personally and professionally, academic societies can implement strategies and support systems to address the mental health needs of their members.

Recent initiatives by academic societies to improve members’ mental health

Thanks to the heightened awareness of mental health challenges today, research societies are advocating for policies and practices that protect and enhance researchers’ mental health and well-being. Here are some inspiring examples.

Mental health workshops and webinars

Many societies offer workshops and webinars on topics related to mental health, such as stress management, resilience building, and work–life balance.

·         American Nurses Association (ANA): Nurses and nursing researchers work in high-stress environments and are prone to mental health issues due to stress and burnout. Recognizing that mental health is an essential part of nurses’ well-being, the ANA launched the Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation (HNHN) program, which encompasses actions in six domains, one of which is mental health. HNHN initiatives include webinars and presentations.

  • American Physical Society (APS): The APS routinely holds networking meetings for members to share experiences; build relationships; and discuss equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives. Last year, one of the sessions of the meeting was on navigating burnout, and this year, the March meeting included a Mental Health Roundtable for those dealing with mental health issues to interact with others and to discuss challenges and further steps.
  • American Chemical Society (ACS): The ACS runs a Changing the Culture of Chemistry series, within which a webinar discussing Mental Health in the Lab was offered.


Mental health awareness campaigns

Some societies run campaigns on mental health awareness and healthy practices. For example, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) holds public health campaigns, many of them catering to mental health issues. One such example is the Scroll Free September campaign to motivate people to have a healthier relationship with social media.

Empowering members to drive change

When society members are given a voice, they can serve as change-makers at the society level, influencing the academic landscape in a particular field. The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) offers Future Leaders Mentorship Fellowships and Young Ambassador programs. Such initiatives can galvanize underrepresented researchers to come forward and share their mental health challenges with confidence. One such Future Leaders Mentorship Fellow and ASM Young Ambassador, Samantha Avina, hosts workshops to encourage young scientists to hone their interpersonal skills and be open to having difficult conversations.

Mental health resources

Some societies offer resources on mental health, including articles, videos, and toolkits, which members can access online. For example, under the HNHN, ANA members can access mental health blogs, presentations, a series about nurse suicide in the American Nurse Journal, and even a nurse suicide prevention/resilience website. HNHN offers members free access to a 1-year subscription to Headspace PLUS, which promotes meditation, healthy sleep, mindful eating, etc.

Envisioning change and implementing innovative steps to address the mental health crisis in academia

There are a number of ways by which academic societies can make a mark in promoting mental health among their members.

Societies can set up mentoring or support programs, where experienced members offer guidance and support to those facing mental health challenges. Surveys may be conducted to assess the mental health needs of members, and the data may be used to tailor various initiatives and resources accordingly. Societies can collaborate with mental health organizations to provide members with expert guidance and support, e.g., counseling services or helplines.

Academic societies can advocate for policies and practices that address systemic issues that negatively impact researcher mental health. They can push for better job security, more equitable funding opportunities, and more inclusive hiring practices. Academic societies can collaborate with universities, funding agencies, and government bodies to promote researcher mental health and well-being. They can share best practices, resources, and data to develop evidence-based policies and programs that benefit researchers.

The specific programs and resources offered can vary from one society to another, depending on the size, resources, and member needs. For societies that are yet to embrace these trends, it all begins with taking that first step. Take for example the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP), which has been actively working on constituting and mobilizing a Mental Health Task Force. The objective is to explore how the SSP can support the well-being of its members, particularly around work-related concerns. Certain practical initiatives to support mental health awareness for SSP members have been earmarked, some of which are being implemented, e.g., disseminating more information on mental health issues through their blog, The Scholarly Kitchen.

To conclude

The alarming rates at which researchers around the world are experiencing depression and anxiety make it amply clear that systemic solutions and support are needed to manage mental health issues. Academic societies are well positioned to take actionable steps against the mental health crisis in academia. In fact, they stand to benefit from such initiatives in the long run. Investing in researcher mental health will yield returns not only by advancing the frontier of knowledge but also by enhancing the sustainability of academic societies.

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