How this PhD student is changing mental health support in science

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Hunter Jamison
25th March 2019


This interview is part of the spare time series. Here, we explore scientists' unique talents and passions alongside their research. Today, we are speaking to Susanna Harris, founder of the PhDepression community.


(Q) Tell me a bit about yourself and your research background. I’m a 5th-year PhD student at UNC Chapel Hill studying how bacteria sticks to plant roots. I’m basically studying how communities of bacteria are getting together and sticking to plants to help them grow. I also love teaching other people about it through science outreach and education, mostly with the local planetarium and science centre.

I also started a ‘passion project’ or social media experiment about 11 months ago. At the end of March last year I had the idea to start an Instagram page called @Ph_D_epression (pronounced Ph-Depression). I started out by telling my story as a PhD student who struggles with, you guessed it, depression. I’ve also had issues with anxiety and what I’ve been talking about more recently: eating disorders. If someone had told me I would be talking with anyone about these things a year ago, I would have laughed, or maybe cried.

(Q) Ph_D_epression has become a big collaborative community, do you feel that it’s that vulnerability that’s helped you gain such a large following so rapidly.

Yeah, I would say ‘social media community’, but it’s spreading out past that. I love the phrase ‘collaborative community’. Our mission is to break the stigma around mental illness in higher education. The reason I didn’t want to talk about it initially is because I was afraid of what people would think about me: that I wasn’t capable or successful. So we need to break the stigma. We’re trying to do that by collecting resources for students and by telling the stories of people in academia dealing with mental health issues. I didn’t know this until I started, but mental illness encompasses things beyond depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, or bipolar disorder. Mental illness includes autism and ADHD/ADD.

The most rewarding part for me is when I introduce myself differently. When I say, “I’m Susanna Harris, PhD candidate in microbiology,” I get a tepid response suc as, “Oh, that’s really cool. What are you looking at?” If I say, “I’m Susanna Harris and I run The PhDepression,” almost everyone comes back with, “Oh, I have anxiety!” And I would reply, “That’s so cool, congratulations! Look at all the things you’re doing even with anxiety, that’s amazing!” It’s a weird response to mental illness, but there’s something amazing about people feeling like you won’t judge them. We want a space in academia where students and faculty can seek support for their mental illness and mental health, the same way they would for physical illness.

"There’s something amazing about people feeling like you won’t judge them."


(Q) You are not applauding mental illness, but forming solidarity around it. Do you think that acknowledgment is a step towards improvement?

Definitely. I often get asked how talking about mental illness has made me stronger and there are certainly strengths I’ve gained through this process. But I also want to stress that in academia - if we don’t ignore it - the opposite danger that is equally damaging is romanticizing mental health issues. The trope of the ‘crazy scientist’ or the ‘shut-in scientist’ who is irritable and cares only about their science. I certainly don’t want to glorify mental illness. I see it more as an internal struggle that can become strength if you can work on it and become self-aware. Hopefully you can also understand more about yourself and relate to others better.

(Q) Do you believe students’ stress is mainly a product of their lab work or are there other factors you typically hear of being attributed to increased stress?

That’s definitely something to think about. The stories we most often get on The PhDepression aren’t, “I was great, but then I went to lab and my life was ruined.” People were almost always struggling before. Either they had issues in high school, their family has a history of mental health issues or they had gone through some dark times. Then they get to academia and it’s like a pressure cooker. You have to face it or you have to really actively hide from it.

The reason it’s such a difficult place is clear when you look at what motivates people. If you look at what kind of job environments, in general, motivate people and keep them engaged and satisfied, you notice three key things. One is the feeling of upward mobility - the feeling that there is an option that they are working towards. Right now, the funding climate in research is scary and not something everyone feels like they’re going towards. The second, which I do think academia can be good for, is autonomy. But the drop-out rates for grad school across all domains, including science, is about 50%, for which the biggest reason given is feeling like people were not mentored or had bad communication with their mentor. Last is the idea that the amount of work put in is directly correlated with the amount of success or feedback received. In research, that doesn’t hold. More experiments does not equal more feedback or any answers. You can’t change that, but one thing we could work on is giving feedback regularly to acknowledge efforts.

"It’s okay to be afraid of these big questions, especially when there is so much uncertainty."


(Q) How do you manage your time between your PhD and other personal interests? In other words, what measures are you taking to avoid burnout and PhDepression?

Making PhDepression was a big part of this. I’m very extrinsically motivated, so PhDepression gives me a worldwide network of people who would be let down if I got too overwhelmed to continue.

I think we can find support in many different ways. Sometimes, outside resources are what are the most helpful. Designing your workflow to work for you is very important. One of my favorite tools is an app called ‘Forrest’, where a little seedling grows into a tree, but it dies if you open another app. Anything that keeps you on track or motivated, whether that’s an app on your phone, a couple sticky notes on your desk, or a platform like Labstep will help you get through those frustrating or scary tasks.

(Q) What advice do you have for younger biology students (undergrads & new graduate students)?

Find others that you trust. An anecdote: I got different medications this year, and I really pushed back against it. I felt like a hypocrite when I was running PhDepression and advocating for this. I was in denial that I was ‘broken’ and thought that I wouldn’t be myself if I wasn’t so nervous and anxious. I reached out to people I trusted and asked, “If I start to become a different person that I wouldn’t like, would you tell me?” Obviously it turned out great. It’s okay to be afraid of these big questions, especially when there is so much uncertainty. The worst thing that could happen is you lose a little time, but at least you gave it a shot.

(Q) What’s the best way for people to get involved with The PhDepression?

Check us out at www.thephdepression.com and on Twitter and Instagram @Ph_D_epression. Feel free to engage with me as well @susannalharris or susannalharris@gmail.com.





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