Advocating for Mental Health at JMM

Image credit: Photo by TotalShape.

Mental health, which encompasses our emotional, physiological, and social well-being, has been a topic I’ve wanted to write about on this blog for a while. I was hesitant at first because I felt unqualified to address the many factors that holistically impact our mental health. However, I couldn’t pass the chance to encourage those attending the Joint Mathematics Meeting to go to the session “Mental Health in the Mathematics Profession” organized by Justin Curry (SUNY Albany) and Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson (CUNY College of Staten Island) tomorrow Wednesday, January 15, 2:15–3:45 pm. Curry and Vejdemo-Johansson along with Julie Corrigan wrote about their own experiences with mental health in their opinion piece, “Mental Health in the Mathematics Community“. Among the authors, we see the challenges faced by being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As highlighted in the article mental health is a problem that is very prominent in the academy and especially prevalent in students from underrepresented backgrounds. 

“Mental illness is a widespread problem, but it has a uniquely devastating presence in the university. In a recent international study of 2,279 masters and PhD students, 39 percent were evaluated as having moderate to severe depression, compared with 6 percent of the general population. Multiple studies have also shown that rates of depression and anxiety in graduate students who are women, people of color, or LGBTQ are higher than among those students who are not. This makes individuals in these groups, who are already underrepresented in STEM programs and consequently STEM careers, at increased risk. Failure to address mental health problems in the university makes addressing inequality in society at large harder to do.”

I encourage you to read their stories, what helped them, and what didn’t. Mental health does not come in one size fits all and supporting each other will depend greatly on the individuals. When searching for articles at the intersection of mathematics and mental health one of the most commonly discussed topics is math anxiety. In “On Math Anxiety“, Anna Haensch gives a glimpse of the research on its impact in math performance and shares links to the experiences of many students. As she mentions,

“By reading the brain functioning of math anxious and math non-anxious people while performing simple arithmetic problems, the research shows that people are better at automatic problem solving when the parts of their brains associated with math anxiety aren’t activated. So that feeling you get when someone asks you to quickly multiply two numbers and you just stare at them, tearing up, like a sad deer in headlights…that’s real. So we know it’s real. And we know that a lot lot lot of people feel it (disclaimer, sometimes I have really had bad math anxiety…sometimes math still makes me cry) but that doesn’t change the fact that everyone has to get through some amount of math education. This means we need to teach math in a way that minimizes the stimulation of that anxious brain and maximizes the release of those glorious math fueled dopamines.” – Anna Haensch

And it is real! During grad school, it became very apparent to me how my anxiety (and in particular math anxiety) got in the way of my studies. Many people think that anxiety is a mindset but for me, it manifested in very real physical symptoms too. A week before any big assignment or test, I would have consistent nightmares along which got worse as deadlines closed in. It got to the point I was incapable of sleeping before tests which meant which not only made me more prone to getting sick but by the time the test arrived my brain was already overwhelmed. In the past, math anxiety has been associated with being “bad” at math. It makes sense that you would be anxious about areas in which you don’t feel you can’t succeed in, however, a recent study at University of Chicago by Jalisha Jenifer, Kyoung Whan Choe, Christopher S. Rozek, Marc G. Berman, and Sian L. Beilock mentions that math anxiety can lead to math avoidance even if rewards are offered. The article “Fear of math can outweigh promise of higher rewards“,

 “People often say that being anxious about math is just a byproduct of being bad at it. Our research shows that isn’t true,” Beilock said. “Even when math-anxious people are capable of doing math, they avoid it, which means that educators and parents have to think about how we can lower math anxiety in our kids or we are going to miss students who are capable of success in math and science and just stay away from it.”

Opening the doors to conversations around mental health is crucial to decreasing the stigma around it. Seeing the article in the Notices of the AMS showcased to me the value of opening up and being vulnerable about your experiences. Mental health challenges don’t only affect our students but they have a big impact on faculty and staff as well. This is also worsened by the fact that training to identify these challenges and intervene is scarce. Hilal Lashuel highlights this in his article “The mental health crisis must be met with an accepting campus community” and suggests that making mental health a strategic priority, providing regular assessments, and training on intervention would be steps to addressing these challenges.

“But we forget that faculty and university staff also struggle with mental health challenges. Their mental health is usually overlooked, perhaps due to their small number compared to students. They are also less likely to speak up or admit to experiencing mental distress because they fear the stakes for their reputation and career are high.[…] What people fail to realise is that the faculty and staff charged with caring and educating their children are not trained in mental health awareness and intervention. Although universities expect their faculty – the people who have daily contact with students – to play a big role in addressing the mental health crisis, most fail to offer staff the training needed to do this job, adding to their struggles to manage their own mental health. ” – Hilal Lashuel

While I can manage my anxiety better now thanks to therapy, it still very present in my life. I am grateful to have been surrounded by understanding peers that worked hard to remove the stigma about mental health in my department and faculty that were very understanding of my challenges. Maybe someday I’ll feel comfortable sharing my own story and for now, I am thankful for all those who have brought this topic to the forefront of our community. Reaching out for help when I needed it was crucial to my well-being and finding the right resources for you can be hard. There are many resources and support groups available in the Depressed Academic Blog, if you are struggling, reach out.

Do you have suggestions of topics or blogs you would like us to consider covering in upcoming posts? Reach out to us in the comments below or let us know on Twitter (@MissVRiveraQ)

About Vanessa Rivera-Quinones

Mathematics Ph.D. with a passion for telling stories through numbers using mathematical models, data science, science communication, and education. Follow her on Twitter: @VRiveraQPhD.
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