Welcome back! After what I sincerely hope was a restorative and productive summer for all of you, it’s time again to welcome new students and researchers to campus, to enjoy meeting a new cohort of arriving faculty and to settle into the academic year.
Mental health is a phrase that too often we avoid or steer quickly and nervously around. Indeed, the rigors of productive and competitive research programs have potential to establish the unhealthiest of habits, taking their toll on mental health. I want to start 2023-24 with a plea to support and encourage ourselves and one another in considering our own mental and physical habits, and to find new ways to approach the stress of our challenging jobs, with the end goal of fostering a healthy community and research environment for ourselves and our students.
In May, an alarming piece was published in Nature that highlighted multiple recent studies that all supported the same conclusion: There is a worldwide mental health crisis in research programs, one that affects, in particular, faculty and graduate students on university campuses around the globe. The author states that “researchers are much more likely than the general population to experience depression and anxiety.”
We often rationalize angst as a badge of honor. We push ourselves and those around us to the brink to produce research deliverables that signify we are the first to traverse uncharted territory. Further complicating matters, we are just emerging from the most serious public health crisis of our lifetimes—there’s every reason to expect anxiety levels to have spiked. However, we cannot simply point our fingers at COVID-19, as the untenable pressures and resulting anxieties pre-date the pandemic. We simply must dismantle the current unhealthy culture that has produced a mental health pandemic and build new, healthy research norms. We must act.
One of the best ways we can help in this mental health pandemic is by being hypervigilant about the culture we create around our own work; are we focusing on the right drivers and rewards to build a sustainable, productive research team? Then, within our teams, are we communicating the opportunities to contemplate and exercise good mental health practices?
There are many services offered at UGA to assist us in this battle. UGA Human Resources provides information to connect faculty and staff to mental well-being resources, and the University System of Georgia offers an outstanding Employee Assistance Program that includes tools for stress management, wellness challenges and coaching services. Finally, are we listening to our colleagues, research staff and students to know when they are struggling?
At a world-class research university like UGA, we expect the quality of our faculty, staff, postdocs and students to be elite. Stress is an expected (and sometimes even beneficial) byproduct of those expectations. But that doesn’t mean our lives need to be a daily, never-ending struggle to keep our psychological heads above water. If we, as faculty mentors, do not don our wellness oxygen masks first, it should be no surprise that the microenvironment in which we place our students and staff will be fraught with unhealthy practices and danger. We must make mental wellness a priority, beginning by normalizing it in our conversations.
We are a community. We have both the resources and the motivation to listen intently and support one another. My hope is that each of us makes a small commitment each day to doing exactly that.
I hope your fall is off to a great start. Best wishes for a wonderful academic year.
Karen J.L. Burg
Vice President for Research
Harbor Lights Chair in Biomedical Research