Marina Philip is a PhD candidate studying analytical chemistry in the Jonathan Sweedler group. With a background in journalism, Marina’s extracurricular efforts focus on outreach, diversity, and fostering positive communication within the department and throughout the community. Here she discusses student-driven initiatives to address mental health concerns within the department.
Our department’s 2017 climate survey found that more than 10 percent of graduate students in each area exceeded clinical thresholds for depression and anxiety. This survey aligned data to something students have known for a long time: academia is failing to address mental health in graduate school.
The release of our survey results coincided with the publication of a cover story in Chemical and Engineering News discussing mental health on a broad academic scale and detailing the tragic story of a graduate student who died by suicide. The article reminds us that this problem is endemic and not exclusive to Illinois, but the question remains: what can we do to create a healthy department on our turf?
A year after the initial survey, students have collectively begun to address mental wellness in chemistry. José Zavala, a fourth-year materials student in the Moore Group, brought together student organizations from across the department to create a summer lecture series on student wellness, which concluded on July 19, 2018.
As the students who initiated, planned, and executed these events, we’d like to pause and reflect on our successes and opportunities to improve.
Zavala was initially inspired by the Summertime Tower Tutorial Talks held on various subjects at the Beckman Institute every summer. He said he wanted to emulate the close community and bring resources directly to the department.
“There are resources around campus,” he said, “but there’s an energy barrier to tell students to go out and get those resources.”
A significant component of the effort was to involve multiple student organizations so that the series belonged to all students. This year’s talks were organized by the UIUC chapters of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), the Younger Chemists Committee (YCC), the Women Chemists Committee (WCC), and the Department of Chemistry Graduate Student Advisory Committee (DCGSAC).
The four seminars were distributed throughout the summer and addressed issues related to mental wellness and the general department climate. SACNAS hosted the first seminar by Prof. Ruby Mendenhall, a professor in sociology and African-American studies, on racial microaggressions.
“Ruby’s talk was based on something minority students face a lot,” said Brenda Andrade, a sixth-year materials student in Zimmerman Group, and SACNAS member. “If you are subjected to microaggressions, that takes a toll on your psyche.”
Andrade said that using microaggressions is easy, so it’s important to raise awareness about what they are and how it affects our department community.
People were open to talking about their experiences during the event, but some were resistant to making the connection to graduate students specifically. In future events, Andrade would like to see a direct connection to grad students and a course of action.
“It’s one thing to be aware,” she said, “another is to eliminate.”
The second seminar, hosted by YCC, sparked an engaging conversation about how to productively communicate with our PIs. Dr. Daniel Wong of the graduate college facilitated a workshop on mentor/mentee relationships tailored to the unique challenges of being a graduate student.
Aya Kelly, a third-year in chemical biology and Chair of YCC, organized the seminar. She said students often feel stress when they have strained relationships or conflicts with their bosses.
“Your boss plays a role in your success in your projects and your career development,” Kelly said. “It’s normal to have conflict with your PI and knowing how to do something about it is empowering.”
During the workshop, students wrote common conflicts down and shared them anonymously. Kelly said that students could see that they're not the only ones experiencing conflict and that we can be there to support each other.
Feedback from this event was so positive that Prof. Martin Gruebele invited Dr. Wong to give a faculty oriented session on mentoring graduate students on October 15th, 2018. The workshop was attended by 91% of the available chemistry faculty.
The Women's Resources Center and WCC hosted a training on bystander intervention, focusing on actionable tools to address sexual harassment and discrimination head-on. The workshop lead to meaningful discussions on what to do in some of our most dreaded interactions: what can we do in situations with a power imbalance, such as between a student and professor? How do we intervene when we are the minority voice in our lab group?
Clear answers are scarce in these situations, but the discussion was refreshingly blunt about the specific challenges chemistry graduate students face when it comes to harassment. Continuing the conversation and moving on to action is a priority for future events.
The final event, hosted by DCGSAC, saw the highest attendance of both students and faculty. Prof. Phil Buhlmann visited from the University of Minnesota to talk about his efforts in prioritizing mental health in his department.
Buhlmann spoke about his role as a vocal advocate for students, by implementing ally training for the LGBT+ community and designating mental health liaisons, who can direct students to the resources they need. He stressed the need for direct involvement from faculty in implementing a healthier work environment.
We know that we have only begun our efforts at addressing mental health. We'd like to see more faculty involvement in our events and initiatives, perhaps by implementing some of the programs Buhlmann found successful at his university. We also acknowledge that the people who likely need training in topics such as racism, interpersonal relationships, and sexual harassment are the least likely to attend such events, so we are exploring strategies toward creating a healthy, department-wide community.
We are grateful for the level of participation we saw with this inaugural series, and we are excited to continue the momentum and grow our program. We welcome your feedback as we look toward the future of mental wellness programs in the department.
Marina Philip, Sweedler Group