Saturday, 19 January 2019

Joint Mathematics Meetings 2019, Baltimore

This week was this year's Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore. The JMM is the world's largest mathematics conference -- the joint annual conference of two of the three mathematical societies in the USA (MAA [Mathematical Association of America] and AMS [American Mathematical Society]; the third - SIAM [Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics] meets in the summer).

I have been talking to people in the leadership of AMS and MAA about mental health in the last couple of years, the last couple of JMMs. I want the societies to step up and help build a support network, or some sort of supportive community, for mathematicians with mental health problems.

After last year, the suggestion came up to organize an event at the JMM as a way to raise visibility and to find other mathematicians willing to help build a community. So together with Ian Gent, I put together an application for a panel discussion and recruited speakers for the panel.

Panel Discussion

In the end, there were four of us on the panel:
1. Myself, a tenure-track professor of mathematics
2. Justin Curry, a tenure-track professor of mathematics (attended over phone, because he fell ill just before the conference)
3. Julie Corrigan, who had to drop out of her PhD studies over depression and anxiety
4. Kate Farinholt, executive director of NAMI Maryland.

The panel was moderated by Helen Grundman (AMS Director for Education and Diversity) and by Chris Goff (Spectra; the organization for LGBT mathematicians)

The discussion started out with everyone introducing themselves, and giving some personal background. For me, Justin and Julie, this meant describing our own struggles.
We went on to talk about what colleagues can do to help. I brought up support from my chair, especially when it comes to scheduling so that I can maintain my health management routines. Understanding and respect from colleagues and supervisors was one theme running through the conversation.

Towards the end, the conversation veered into questions of how to handle students with issues or in distress.

Other events

This year the JMM saw a lot of diversity related events, and mental health was included in several other contexts. While I had to miss a lot of what was going on at the conference (by necessity when there are dozens of parallel sessions at any given time), I did go to a SIAM-organized session on diversity among students. One of the talks in that session was entitled Recognizing and Responding to STEM students in Distress. This talk started out with walking the audience through depressive and anxiety-spectrum mental disorders, and how they can manifest - and continued talking about how we, as teachers, can support students that we do notice are going through distressing or traumatic episodes.

Going forward

I have had many small chats with people at the conference: students and faculty coming up to me and talking to me, both immediately after the panel, but also in the corridors of the conference. One graduate student told me he was already trying to organize something similar to our panel discussion, but focused on struggling graduate students. Several have approached me eager to help get the community up and running and to organize us - both senior community members and undergraduate students.

I am planning on setting up a handful of mailing lists, and then to see if I can organize another panel discussion next year. If you are willing to join a panel conversation, contact me.

It has been somewhat nervewracking to organize and participate in this, but it has been incredibly rewarding, and it has been very clear that what we did resonates with a lot of people, and starts work that the community needs.

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