The Importance of Mental Health Awareness in STEM!

As scientists, we are trained to think logically which offers an explanation as to why acknowledging mental health within STEM still has room for improvement. I recently attended a lecture in which the professor stated that people must ‘grow up’ when it comes to addressing mental health. For some reason we are perfectly fine discussing physical disease states however when drawing focus to mental health, it is seen as controversial resulting in stigmatisation and judgement when in actuality mental health disorders are as physical as any other disease or disorder.

So how do we increase awareness of mental health in STEM?

It’s time to be open

For those affected by mental health disorders, either themselves or a friend or relative, being open about your experiences can be difficult. This could be due to the fear of embarrassment, judgment or critique. Moving forward this fear must be removed. I believe one way this can be done is by somewhat normalising mental health disorders. Just as we are comfortable discussing breaking a bone or catching a common cold, mental health should become part of an honest conversation with ourselves and others. By sharing our own experiences we can promote awareness and begin a dialogue urging others to become more aware of their own mental health. By being open with one another those who are still afraid to share can feel a sense of normality that they are not alone. In the future, I hope to see panels, presentations and open debates on mental health awareness in STEM highlighting its importance and removing its stigma.

Establish a support network

Establishing support networks in all aspects of life can be hugely beneficial to your overall mental health. From family, to close friends to work colleagues, it is important to have a group of people within these areas to give you support and guidance in times of need. In regards to STEM, the difficulty in expressing ourselves and the state of our mental health within the workplace can be daunting and still detrimental in some professions. This needs to be addressed across STEM to ensure our work colleagues have a support network at hand during times of stress and difficulty. For example, earlier this year I opened up to my own supervisor and work colleagues about the state of my mental health and admitted I was struggling. I am extremely lucky to be surrounded by a team that understands and supports me and I believe in turn this has led to a stronger student-supervisor relationship. Although I am aware that not everyone will have this luxury, I hope by increasing awareness and the importance of workplace support that everyone in time can establish their own support network as I have found this to be fundamental in my career progression.

Seek out available resources

Receiving help as soon as possible is of utmost importance when addressing the state of your mental health. As well as establishing a support network, researching the help and resources available to you can aid in improving your mental health. Help can come in many forms from one-to-one counselling sessions, targeted group workshops to online resources. Although not all workplaces within STEM are comparable, many universities offer such support for their staff and students. Unfortunately, this is not the case for all workplaces in STEM, however exploring your local community for resources provided by charities, organisations, medical professionals and your support networks are also potential options for those lacking workplace resources targeted at addressing mental health. Do not give up, help is out there.

Check in with yourself and others

Despite our passion for our research and our motivation to help improve the lives of others, when working within STEM we can become consumed and overwhelmed by our work-load with our work-life balance suffering as a consequence. We can be so focused on our work that we are not as motivated to give the same passion to ourselves. When it comes to addressing the state of our mental health we must learn to become more selfish in order to help ourselves and improve our well-being. It is important to check in with yourself daily, take time out of your day to do something you enjoy that brings you happiness. Promote self-care as much as you care for your work. It is also fundamental to check in with others. How many of us have passed a colleague in the office and asked “how are you?” and given the same answer of “I’m fine”. Be honest with others as these will be the people who can form your support network who you can check in with regularly. You may even find that others in your workplace are experiencing the same as to you.

Be the change you want to see

I was recently told by a friend and work colleague “you are the change”. Promoting mental health awareness starts with us. Those of us who have experienced a mental health disorder or know of someone who has suffered need to have their voices heard. How can we expect people to understand and stand with us if we won’t even stand for ourselves? Find your own way of promoting mental health awareness whether it is sharing your own experiences, volunteering your time to campaigning and fundraising, being approachable to those who need support or even starting a conversation on the importance of mental health. We are the change.