4 minutes

By Wendy Marie Ingram, Founder and CEO of Dragonfly Mental Health, a global consortium for academic mental health, and Adriana Bankston PhD, Małgorzata Anna Gazda PhD, United States.

 Recent studies have demonstrated that graduate student mental health struggles are pervasive and severe [1, 2]. During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, these numbers continue to increase [3]. This may result in creating inhospitable environments for graduate students in academia, and the attrition of the best talent out of the academic pipeline. Therefore, addressing mental health issues in academia, in particular for graduate students, is of paramount importance and must be addressed urgently.

In contrast to graduate students, limited evidence on the prevalence or effect of mental illness among postdoctoral fellows, residents, faculty, and staff has been collected within universities. However, mental health struggles likely do not end with graduate or professional training. Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety are known to be both biologically and environmentally driven [4]. However, in surveys conducted among graduate student, postdoctoral fellow, and faculty researchers at the University of California Berkeley Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health between 2018-2019, stigma and fear of societal and career repercussions among early career researchers have been found to be major factors preventing those that need the most help from seeking it at their institutions.

Dragonfly Mental Health (Dragonfly) [5] is a newly formed nonprofit organization (incorporated: April 2020) dedicated to creating sustainable cultural changes within universities in ways that support and cultivate excellent mental health among academics worldwide. In order to combat stigma against mental health struggles, Dragonfly has developed a multi-media anti-stigma program which involves interviewing faculty of a given academic community who have lived experience with mental health struggles and creating a short film [6]. During an hour long event, the 5 to 15 minute film is introduced and screened by the academic community. This is followed by a period of independent small group discussions, followed by a facilitated large group discussion. (Prompt questions will be disclosed in the full manuscript.) An anonymous post-event survey is then used to capture subjective responses to the film, the event, and suggestions of what the academic community can do better to combat  the stigma around mental health struggles for academics at different career stages.  

Here we report on a case study performed at the University of California Berkeley in the Molecular and Cell Biology Department. Six faculty with lived experience of mental health struggles or those that had worked with someone closely who had struggled were recruited for filmed interviews. A 13-minute film was edited and screened at three separate multi-day divisional retreats between September 2019 and January 2020.  Anonymous answers from a total of 150 participants at all career stages (faculty, postdoc, student, staff) were collected and analyzed.  The majority of participants indicated that  the screening followed up with group discussion was beneficial and reduced stigma. The vast majority of participants concluded that the film discussion has the potential to reduce stigma around mental health conditions in academia, as well as to improve the wellness and effective work/life balance in the community. Complete results will be detailed in the full text of the communication.

[1] T.M. Evans, et. al. “Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education.” Nature Biotechnology, Vol 36, No 3, March (2018) 

[2] P. Barreira, M. Basilico, V. Bolotnyy. “Graduate Student Mental Health: Lessons from American Economics Departments.” Working Paper: https://scholar.harvard.edu/sites/scholar.harvard.edu/files/bolotnyy/files/bbb_mentalhealth_paper.pdf [Accessed July 14th, 2020] November (2018)

[3] J. Torrales, et. al. “The outbreak of COVID-19 coronavirus and its impact on global mental health.” International Journal of Social Psychiatry