The Pressure to Succeed: Why Scientists are Prone to Mental Health Issues

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If the latest COVID-19 pandemic has taught the world anything, it’s that scientists will be in high demand from now on. This is not only reflective of the need for innovation in Health Sciences but also for specialists that can tackle challenges such as climate change. However, as the globe requests more help from STEM experts, the same people are facing a mental health crisis as never seen before.

According to the reports published by UC Berkeley and the University of Arizona in 2014 and 2015, over 50% of the interviewed have an unhealthy work-life balance. The data collected by both institutions emphasised how little is done to encourage students to take a step back from their studies and focus on their personal lives. Although this may not seem something universities have to do, it is important to realise that mental health issues have a dramatic impact on people’s livelihood and can affect their academic productivity.

Jeff Clements, a postdoctoral fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, states that the pressure to succeed in his research caused him to feel extremely anxious. In his article published by Nature, Clemens goes on by saying that one of the factors most affecting his mental health is being able to reproduce his experiments times and times again. From a non-STEM perspective, this might not be a pressing issue, but any STEM student will tell you they were worried at least once in their academic life about gathering perfect results in the lab. At some point, it becomes more about proving a point—proving you can make it—than working on your abilities enough to reach that perfection.

Once a scientific paper is published by a team of scientists, others will try to reproduce the experiments. However, estimates from Nature show that between 50 and 90% of scientists have tried to reproduce someone else’s experiment and failed. In terms of discoveries, this could either mean the findings were false, which could happen but is unlikely, or some other factors are contributing to the difficulties in reproducing experiments. Nature answers this dilemma by estimating that above 60% of the interviewed think the pressure to publish plays an important role in the reproducibility crisis.

Another issue STEM students and professionals face is the competitive work environment. According to the US Census Bureau, only 1.2% of the population has a PhD, meaning most students do not carry on studying after their master’s programmes. It is difficult to get into a PhD and even more so to keep focus and graduate. Of those earning a PhD and working in STEM, women account for only a third. Although this could open a bigger debate, it underlines why people are always struggling to be on top. It is this struggle that causes scientists to suffer from mental health issues.

Lastly, STEM students and workers are sometimes affected by strict regulations because of the hazards of the workplace. Labs can be dangerous environments. Scientists face machines, reactants and biological hazards that require following firm rules and being focused throughout the time spent in the lab. Although many other jobs have to deal with even riskier situations, the dangers of STEM jobs combined with the other factors mentioned previously increase the pressure put on the body and mind of scientists. It is not a coincidence that STEM students are given the same ‘Safety in the Lab‘ talk every year during the first week at university.

But how does this translate to numbers? According to UC Berkeley, around 30% for men and 40% for women develop anxiety, while this datum climbs to 55% for a gender non-conforming interviewee. The figures are similar regarding depression, where gender non-conforming people again face the biggest struggles. What is even more alarming is that 50% of the whole cohort feels they were not given enough support from personal academic tutors and advisors, who should have cared for their mentees.

Although this article focused on what can cause mental health issues, it is also important to propose solutions. The first step towards a more caring STEM environment is to enhance the resources allocated to mental health support. Backing students throughout university is the gateway to ensure a healthier workforce in the future. Secondly, a cultural change needs to happen, so that women and gender non-conforming people have better opportunities at acceding to STEM careers, and at being offered mental health advice when required. Lastly, there is the need to remove the stigma from those seeking mental help, so that people struggling with any kind of mental health issue can feel welcomed by the community. If we want scientists to help through global crises, we need to boost the resources allocated towards improving their mental health.

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2nd Year Neuroscience student. Interested in Clinical and Computational Neuroscience. I enjoy writing articles about STEM topics.

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