In a 2014 survey of more than 300 graduate students by Nadine Kaslow and colleagues, 34.4% reported average to critical depression, 7.3% had thoughts of suicide, and 2.3% had plans for suicide. This research was managed at a single university, but a nationwide survey shows similar aims for depression among graduate students. While the nationwide survey did not look at suicide statistics, the data from Kaslow’s study suggest that when you sit in a seminar room with 40 grad students, it’s possible that 14 of those students are struggling with depression, 3 are considering suicide, and 1 has a suicide plan. These are numbers that we can’t ignore. We also need to understand what mental illness is and isn’t. Mental illness is not a choice. It is not feeling sad, requiring motivation, or worrying too much. Those are the symptoms, not the cause. Mental illness is a physical illness. Like other illnesses, it can be tracked to biochemical disorders that reduce the normal functioning of our cells. In the case of mental illness, those cells just happen to be in the brain.
As group leaders, we must ensure lab safety. We are responsible for putting in place policies and training to reduce the risk of physical injury from the chemicals or material used in our labs. We also have a responsibility to reduce the risk of mental injury by creating environments that support psychological safety. One example of a practical action you can take is to craft health for your lab. This policy can explain your support for things such as students taking time out of the lab to visit a mental health professional or traveling home to cope with the loss of a family member.