IS-MPMI > COMMUNITY > Interactions > Posts > Dear Advisor, It’s not just a bad day.
Jun 11
Dear Advisor, It’s not just a bad day.
​EIC’s note: May was Mental Health Awareness Mon​th, so it is very fitting that this issue of Interactions includes the following article, written by UNC-Chapel Hill PhD candidate Susanna Harris, which captures the struggles that some student trainees can have in the lab. The article is aimed primarily at principal investigators and provides valuable suggestions to help support a mentally healthy work environment. This is a topic that warrants openness and communication and I’m hoping that it will incite further discussion among the IS-MPMI membership (questions, concerns, support, etc.​). There are multiple ways that you can do this: talk with your colleagues in your lab or department; provide comments or questions after this article; tag the @ISMPMI Twitter account (use #MPMImentalhealth​) in related discussions using social media; or start a dialog with other members at the Congress in Glasgow.  The people in our labs are our most valuable resources and a great blueprint for a healthy work environment should include support for both physical and mental health.  – Dennis Halterman, Interactions Editor-in-Chief

By Susanna Harris, University of North Carolina, C​hapel Hill

You see her sitting at her bench, writing something in her notebook. “Oh good, she’s doing better,” you think, giving your graduate student a smile to convey your approval of her renewed interest in work. Compared to the first few years, her rigor and amount of progress had been declining, her attention in meetings wavering, her usually bright smile dimming instead of expanding out as she takes a new direction in research. Her labmate told you she didn’t sleep for two days before her department seminar and couldn’t stop obsessing over the tiniest error she made during the talk. But now it looks like she’s turned things around and there is no need to bring any of this up.

Or maybe it’s a new student who joined your lab last month; he impressed you with quick wit and a range of knowledge during the interview, but you’re starting to have your doubts about his dedication to grad school. After missing two meetings in a row and becoming angry at the smallest negative word from a colleague, he’s hurting the lab environment more than helping to grow your team. When he admits to seeing a therapist, you feel uneasy but hope he will soon get back to being the person you hired. You leave it alone for him to figure out. You know he needs to rediscover his excitement for research; academia is a hard but rewarding place where optimism is crucial in the face of stress.

Everyone has bad days and everyone in academic research will face many a setback, but for someone with depression it can be nearly impossible to bounce back from these disappointments. Something that causes a few days of stress for most researchers may result in weeks of fear and distress for someone living with anxiety disorders. These people may love science and want to do their research as much as everyone else, but the brilliant mind that they use to do the work is also the weapon hurting them.

Major Depressive and Anxiety Disorders are illnesses, not emotions to be pushed past1. Avoiding discussions around mental illness only further buries those struggling under more layers of guilt and shame. Still, navigating these waters is terrifying, especially since almost none of us is trained to start the conversation around mental illness. Around one in four graduate students2,3 are struggling in any two-week period, chances are YOU will need to at least dip your toes into this area or risk facing the consequences of a trainee’s ongoing suffering, both for the trainee and for your lab.

So how, with the liability issues and general discomfort of bringing up these topics, can you support your students? Think about mental illness like any other illness.

If you saw your student struggling with their physical health, what would you do?

Asthma is another chronic illness that affects millions of adults and which used to carry a similar stigma as depression does today4. You may know that a student suffers from moderate asthma and carries an inhaler, but you are not their physician and would never give medical advice; however, if you noticed that person struggling to breathe while just walking up a flight of stairs, you might ask if they were okay. If a cold spreads around the lab, you know their respiratory system could have a harder fight to clear out the virus. And if that person’s health was so bad as to disrupt their own or others’ productivity, you’d urge them to use the resources available to students, possibly offering them some time off to get better. All of this can still be true for someone dealing with depression, especially during the particularly stressful or demoralizing moments that occur throughout grad school.

The love of science cannot save a person from a depressive episode5, just as the love of running will not save an asthmatic from an attack. You are in a unique position to guide your students to the resources that can help them monitor and support their mental health.

Here is a short list of suggestions to help you get started.

1. Know your resources and requirements

Every institution has resources, but many students and faculty don’t know where to start looking. Searching through the websites yourself can be very helpful, but a director of student affairs or your department chair can help point you in the right directions. You can also email the student health services or set up a meeting with HR. Knowing what resources are available, and what guidelines and laws you are required to follow, will help you to support your trainees while protecting yourself and the lab.

2. Create a supportive lab environment

Now that you have the resources in hand, make sure that your own lab knows how to find them. If you don’t yet have a lab website with clear expectations and practices, set one up based on others’ examples6,7. In addition to curating these resources, writing a statement of support for health and diversity can show trainees that you are open to discussing these types of topics and supporting their efforts.

3. Recognize the warning signs

While we highlight Major Depression and Anxiety Disorders, many symptoms of mental health distress are common across a spectrum of illnesses8.

a. Excessive worrying or sadness

b. Difficulty concentrating

c. Loss of interest in activities (anhedonia)

d. Extreme mood changes, including euphoria or irritability, or changes in energy

e. Avoiding friends and social activities

f. Changes in eating habits or absue of substances

g. Inability to perceive changes in one’s own behavior or personality (anosognosia)

h. Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress

4. Ask questions

It’s okay to ask your students how they are doing, as long as you actually listen to the answer. Given the types of sensitive information that comes out of these conversation, use discretion when sharing anything discussed, but also make sure to not put yourself in a legally compromising situation or ask for any medical information. If you feel uncomfortable about a specific situation, ask if student support services can help moderate or invite the student to bring a colleague. Respect the student’s wishes as far as using email or meetings, and be careful to not spread information9; breaking trust is worse than having none to start with. That said, you might be a required reporter for self-harm or other threats, so know where those limits are10.

Also, talk with other faculty. Many have dealt with similar issues in their own labs and may offer advice or a listening ear. Avoid giving more information away than necessary, especially if the colleague might be likely to pass on your conversation.

5. Support yourself

Graduate students aren’t the only ones who can suffer. Take this time to reflect on your own mental health to make sure that the lab is strong from top to bottom11. If there should be no shame in your trainees getting help for their wellbeing, it should be equally acceptable and laudable for you to do the same12.

Why should we focus on graduate student mental health if all levels of researchers may struggle with mental illness?

Because we need to start somewhere, and most graduate programs focus directly on training students to be adept in all facets of academic work. You talk with them about dicey situations like getting rejected,  teach them how to navigate lab politics, coach them on giving great speeches, and critique their writing process until both of you are satisfied. In addition to training them to start new experiments after others fail, you can train them to bounce back more quickly when the failures start piling up.

The students in your lab are bright, devoted, and passionate. You care about their personal and professional success. Training them to not only use their mind, but to monitor and care for it will help them be a better researcher and academic far after they graduate from your lab. Maybe reading this, you feel some guilt about someone in the past for whom you didn’t know how to give the right support. Please, forgive yourself and learn from these times so you can help your current and future trainees.


Your Trainee.


  1. “Learning the warning signs”:

Susanna Harris is PhD Candidate in Microbiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @SusannaLHarris

Susanna is also the Founder of The PhDepression LLC ( You can follow them on Twitter and Instagram at @Ph_D_epression

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