The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology held a special town hall on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019 on mental health inclusivity in academia. University of Michigan’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) led the workshop on helping students in distress. EEB hopes to use this town hall meeting as a jumping off point to begin instituting more proactive interventions for improving mental health across the department.

“I found it very helpful and informative and am delighted to acknowledge the leadership role of GREEBs President Lisa Walsh in bringing it about,” EEB Professor and Chair Diarmaid ÓFoighil wrote in an email. GREEBs stands for Graduate Researchers in EEB and is the student leadership organization within the department.

“Lisa was instrumental in identifying graduate student mental health as a major latent issue in our department, holding an anonymous survey that illustrated the scope of the problem, and recruiting CAPS personnel, LaTonya Demps, Lareese Collins and Christopher Raines, to run the workshop. Please join me in thanking her!”

Motherly affection in the Mara, Maasai Mara, Kenya. Image: Molly Hirst

Walsh had mental health on her mind and knew she wanted to organize a workshop for EEB. “A student of mine last winter was very involved in Michigan's Out of the Darkness, our chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She introduced me to Mental Health First Aid, a two-day intensive training offered for instructors and students. I wanted to find something more accessible to faculty, staff and students, and CAPS happens to offer a number of 90 - 120 minute workshops. In consulting with CAPS staff, we decided that ‘Helping Students in Distress’ would be the most helpful for the EEB department. 

“Out of 44 EEB students surveyed, more than half believe they have suffered from a mental health disorder during their graduate career. As highlighted in the workshop: ‘people start to heal the moment they felt heard.’ Every person in academia has a different path, and we tend to only hear about their milestones – not their failures or roadblocks. This illusion of perfection and a ‘sink or swim’ mindset is keeping brilliant students and researchers out of academia. The more we support each other and say, "it's okay to struggle, it's okay to ask for help – in fact it's better to ask for help and you do not need to do this alone," the better our community and our science will be.

“We see our general physician on an annual basis. We should do the same sort of consistent check-in for our mental health. Out of 44 EEB students, 59 percent have sought professional help for mental health. The majority of grad students also said their mental health had been negatively impacted by a graduate milestone such as qualifying exams or defending, so I take it as a good sign that the majority of students sought professional help.” Walsh's advisor is Professor Priscilla Tucker in the Museum of Zoology.

Solitude, Corcovado, Costa Rica. Image: Gail Kuhnlein

Other takeaways from the event were that anyone can be a first responder, so it’s important to be able to identify a student in need. The top five mental health concerns identified for students are: anxiety, depression, self-esteem, academic stress and relationship concerns. And, according to CAPS, 19 – 26 percent of U-M students who utilized their services (for non-crisis or crisis appointments) have had some degree of suicidal thoughts. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. It’s important for students to know that they are not alone.

Raines, one of the presenters, shared a message he received from a member of his faculty on his first day, “you belong here.” He said it was extremely helpful to him in overcoming imposter syndrome. Clearly, faculty can be a great source of support for students.

“Don’t compare your insides to others’ outsides,” was advice from EEB Professor Meghan Duffy, during the meeting, “outer appearances don’t show what’s going on in someone’s head.”

Creating an environment that is accepting and supportive of mental health and well-being is essential for active learning. The department looks forward to continuing to offer opportunities for growth in the area of student mental health inclusivity.