Universities take a look at postdocs' mental-health issues
Pressure; life as a student is full of it. It can lead to stress, depression, loss of sleep and, in some cases, suicide. At a meeting sponsored by scientific research society Sigma Xi and the US National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) last month, a few university administrators talked about their approaches to the problem.
A few years ago, the University of California, Berkeley, was shocked when three postdocs committed suicide within 18 months of each other. The event highlighted flaws in the support given to students: only one of the three was considered an employee, and so would have been eligible to use the university's mental-health facilities. And even then, it became clear that these facilities weren't advertised particularly well to postdocs. That has now changed, says Sam Castañeda, the university's director of postdoc affairs. The university last year modified its health system to provide access to all postdocs at all of its campuses, regardless of their employment status.
In another approach, the University of Vanderbilt School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, recently hired a clinical psychologist to work out of the university's postdoc office. Roger Chalkley, senior associate dean of the the medical school, says that research is intense and can give rise to myriad pressures whose manifestations “are best handled by a professional”. Access to the psychologist will not be dictated by employment status and is available to postdocs, graduate students and medical students.
Could such resources become more widespread in the United States? Alyson Reed, executive director of the NPA, says for that to happen, institutions must either follow the University of California's lead and open up access to all postdocs, regardless of funding, or else the National Institutes of Health must change its designation of postdocs, as under many grants they can't be considered employees. Either approach would ease the pressure and make research training a safer, healthier proposition.
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Smaglik, P. Stress management. Nature 439, 629 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7076-629a