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We Need to Talk About the Science Community's Mental Health Problem

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I meant to write this article yesterday. That’s not a statement of procrastination. I have depression, which was triggered a few years ago by events directly related to my career. The symptoms of depression are different from person to person. For me, I have to go lay in bed, in silence. Tasks like getting up to heat leftover pizza in the microwave are insurmountable. So I wasn’t exactly up to the task of writing an article, even if it was about the condition I have.

But I’ve already talked too much about mental health for our society’s comfort. It’s strange, really. Physicians recommend yearly check-ups for the physical aspects of the body, yet we don’t go for yearly mental health check-ups. If you break your arm, you’ll see a triage nurse, a radiologist, a clinician, and maybe a surgeon and physical therapist. Nobody tells you you shouldn’t seek treatment, and you probably aren’t going to have second thoughts about going to urgent care or the emergency room (unless you have an emotional reaction to hospitals). So why, when your brain gets “injured” in a psychological way, is there a stigma about seeing a medical professional? Why do I feel like I have to lie about going to therapy appointments? Why can I tell only my most trusted family and friends about my condition?

College and professional sports teams have medical professionals on staff to attend to injuries in real time on the field. Game play halts until that person is able to be safely removed from the game or return to play. The audience claps out of respect. The media talk about injury reports for players and how long they’ll be unable to play. As scientists, our minds are our most important trait. Where are our high-profile, professional trainers? Why don’t we get put on the injury list when our minds are hurt?

So far, it has been up to the individual to get help for themselves, not always with the critical support they need, with regards to mental issues. But after speaking out at meetings about what as I see as an epidemic of mental health illnesses in our community, total strangers came up to me and thanked me for my words. Young, old, male, female, reinforcing this idea of an epidemic. I worry for the ones who did not approach me or the ones who aren’t even aware they might need help, what jeopardy their lives are in. As a professional society, we cannot ignore a situation affecting so many of its members, a crisis that has an impact on our most valuable asset. When our minds hurt, our productivity as a community hurts. Our shared passion hurts. Our colleagues hurt. Our friends hurt.

How are we going to solve this issue? I don’t know yet, but somebody had to mention the invisible elephant in the room. We can figure this out.

This post originally appeared on Women in Astronomy.

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Originally published: January 25, 2017
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