The benefits of telling people you’re a miserable git
Note: This is a guest post by a new contributor, Hannah Dee from Aberystwyth University. The new site she mentions in her article is at https://scientistsarehumans.com/.
About 7 weeks ago I was at an event, at the Alan Turing institute in London, for inclusion and diversity activists. We were there to try and change the game about diversity in STEM using a kind of hackathon format - we’d pitch ideas that could make STEM better for minorities and old people and the disabled and women and LGBT+ and then maybe we’d get funding and change the world.
At this event, for the first time in my life, I stood up in front of a group of strangers and talked about mental health. But let me backtrack a bit and give you some history.
I’m a depressed academic. I’ve been a depressed academic before (about 17 years ago during my PhD, about 10 years ago as a post-doc working abroad, 5-6 years ago as a new lecturer). I was, if I’m honest, a grumpy teenager although never diagnosed as depressed.
My current episode is pretty bad - major depressive disorder, lasted more than a year now - and is currently being addressed with part-time working, an excellent counsellor and elephantine quantities of Sertraline. Not for the first time, I’ve told my line manager, close colleagues and a few friends. They’ve all been great. They’ve always been great.
I’ve done something different this time though and I think - on balance - it’s helped. My family found out. Yes, I probably should have told them earlier, but I didn’t want to burden them with my problems (a line of reasoning every depressed person will recognise). Gradually a broader set of colleagues found out, partly because I have been more open about telling people, and partly because of my habit of crying a lot. I think now, most of them know. A handful of students know too (see aforementioned crying habit). I’m less sure what I think about this but a few have been to see me and told me they appreciate knowing they’re not alone.
It turns out that pretty much everyone has been very supportive. It’s been strangely both uplifting and upsetting to find out how many other people have also been in this situation. Sometimes I feel like the “one in five” mental health statistic seems on the low side, to be honest. Through telling people that I’m not well, in a sense it’s given less confident people permission to talk to me about how they feel. I wouldn’t say we have a miserable gits club in our department but it’s getting close.
There have been a few “why are you depressed, you’ve got nothing to be upset about” and “cheer up love” reactions, but not many.
So at the Turing Institute I thought one thing we could do for inclusion was to look at mental health, and in particular ways in which we could make STEM more kind. This was something we (PoC scientists, LGBT+ scientists, women scientists, miserable gits…) might have in common. More kindness and more understanding could make a lot of the challenging aspects of STEM less horrible.
This is why I spoke about my mental health to a group of strangers - for the first time. As the “hackathon” progressed a group of us formed a team around kindness in STEM, and pitched our idea to the judges. We didn’t get funding but we went and did it anyway.
Part of this has to involve telling our stories - if people don’t know what it’s like to be a depressed academic, or the only black person in your year, or mistaken for serving staff at a conference, then other people can’t help. https://scientistsarehumans.com/ is our project. If you want to write for us, get in touch.
I’m not well, still, and some days I’m not 100% convinced I’m getting better. Most days I think I am - to be honest, I’d have never got this much done, 6 months ago. I’m aware now of how lucky I am to have a good marriage, good friends and family, supportive colleagues, and the financial stability to be able to go part time. Occasional bad days still come along and blind side me and it all seems much worse. I am however doing something about it, working hard on looking after myself and trying to help others to look after themselves and others too. A big part of this comes from talking about it - from telling people what’s going on in my head, and then listening to what they think.
Thanks to Hannah for this post. We always welcome guest posts and can post anonymously, pseudonymously, or with your name.