A note to graduate students regarding some reflections about the UNC-CH tragedy: using a mirror reflecting back to me an image of my world of mental health challenges.
Dear Gentle Biology Graduate Students
If you have spent time with me, you probably know that I have worked through mental health challenges of chronic and acute depression, debilitating anxiety, and navigating the academic world as researcher, teacher and administrator while being on the autism spectrum. I am open about these things because I decided thirty years ago, when I was successfully treated for acute depression, that I would do everything in my power to destigmatize mental health challenges. Candidly, being open about mental health challenges left me vulnerable as an administrator as some people used that openness against me.
Depression leading to suicide is the second largest cause of death behind accidents (mostly car) for people in their late teens and twenties. The risk of dying because of a treatable mental health disorder is far greater than things like cancer and heart disease for those of you in that age group.
"So, I want to take a moment and acknowledge the events that took place at UNC-Chapel Hill earlier this week. You may know that a graduate student is accused of murdering his faculty advisor. According to a few news outlets, the accused graduate student stated that his PI made him work 80 hours a week and didn’t care about his work-life balance. Other graduate students in the lab stated that they didn’t think the accused student was up to the task of being in the graduate program but was well-meaning. Of course, everyone interviewed was shocked and saddened that such an event could take place. The deceased faculty member, Dr. Zijie Yan, was an associate professor and father of two." (This paragraph is a quote from a message sent colleagues and students of Dr. Ayehsa Boyd, Arizona State University. She gave permission to quote from her note.)
This is a reminder that stress, anxiety, depression and other challenges may not only lead to violence against oneself to stop the pain, but in some cases violence against others. I can't pretend to know what was going on in the mind of the graduate student who was accused of shooting the professor so don't want to imply that I know what the person was feeling. But, I do know from experiencing deep depression and debilitating anxiety that the emotional pain can feel unbearable and that your mind wants to do anything it can to stop the pain.
Those in my undergraduate classes and in BIO 600 know that I talk about mental health a lot. And, I try to provide constant reminders to students to take stock of their emotions and to take a break if that will help, but also to seek help. I know from experience that one cannot deal with depression, extreme stress, or debilitating anxiety completely alone, albeit there are things you can do to lessen their effects (exercise, for example).
UNCG has counseling and crisis resources : https://shs.uncg.edu/mental-health-well-being/counseling-psychological-services/in-crisis/. And, the counseling center takes walk in appointments every weekday between 12:00- 4:00. Don't hesitate to use these resources.
I have also worked with a number of students in connecting them with resources or just sharing my experiences with mental health challenges and having a neurodiverse brain. I have walked with several over to the counseling center because some are really scared of seeing a counselor. If my door is open, you can walk in. If you want to schedule an appointment, just ask. The only things I can promise you are that: I won't try to diagnose you: I will not be judgmental; and if you want, I will do what I can to connect you to professional resources. Malcolm (and other faculty) are also excellent resources and many of us, including Malcolm and I, have been trained in mental health first aid and can connect you with resources.
In BIO 600 last week, I talked a little bit about the challenge of power differentials between graduate students and faculty. There are some faculty who make those boundaries clear. There are some, at least me, who want to treat everyone like colleagues. And, those of us who do can forget that graduate students are always aware of the power differential even if we (I) are not. The power differential can result in great feelings of stress for graduate students, especially if you don't know how to navigate it. One of the reasons that the GSC included a long list of expectations for students in advisors in their relationship as mentor-mentee in the 2023-2024 graduate handbook was so that issues related to expectations of both mentor and mentee can be discussed early in one's tenure in a faculty member's lab.
For those of you who have never experienced what it feels like to someone who is experiencing acute depression, it can be really hard to understand that clinical depression is not just feeling down or disappointed. The pain it can it has caused in my life is significantly worse than my most physically painful experience - an excruciating battle with a kidney stone that required a whole lot of morphine to get through. The 30 or so your old book by William Styron (the author most notably know for Sophie's choice), "Darkness Visible", is a short read that describes what it feels like for those experiencing acute depression and how he managed to come out of it. If you have family members or friends that say they have clinical depression, and you don't fully understand why they just can't snap out if, this book can help.
Also remember that undergraduates in the courses you teach at UNCG are also dealing with significant stress, mental health challenges and being on the neurodiverse spectrum. In my large undergraduate classes where I talk about this a lot, it is amazing how many notes I get about what that means for me to be so open about mental health challenges for their sense of inclusion in class. I am happy to talk with any of you about how I approach discussions with students.
I always start the semester with some survey questions. I always ask what the student's biggest non-academic worry is for the semester. The choices are infectious disease, financial issues, relationships with family, partners or friends, issues relating to diversity, equity and inclusion, and mental health. The class is at least 65% minority students. This year in my class of 125, over 60% selected mental health with the remainder selecting finances and relationships. And, in Canvas, Achieve or email conversations, probably about half of the class has told me about mental health challenges they are trying to manage..
I hope that those of you who have interacted with me as a professor and/or as GPD recognize that I really do care about all of you. I also genuinely believe in all of you. I have only realized recently that is a trait that I inherited from my father. I feel lucky to have it, even though it can affect me deeply when any of you (or any students I work with) are struggling, especially when I don't know how to help.
Sorry for the long note. But, it is just a reminder to take care of yourself, pay attention to your stress levels and emotions, and never be afraid to reach out for help, because you feel that asking for help with mental health challenges is somehow a sign of weakness. Mental health challenges aren't any more a sign of weakness, in my opinion, than getting an infectious disease or cancer. I often remind students that if they break a bone, or feel really sick, they rarely hesitate to go seek help form medical professionals. Yet, when they are in intense emotional distress they hesitate. I dream of a world where culturally we don't see much difference between mental and physical health challenges with respect to seeking help.
I know I speak for Malcom that we really do care about you and want the best for you in graduate school, your current lives, and your future.
with the warmth of ours and all other suns,