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Magazine
Oct 16, 2022

STEMming From the Past: Mental Health Among our Sciences

Dawn Attride delves into the work environment of STEM disciplines and the students who often struggle with the intense workloads and competition intrinsic to the courses.

Dawn Attride Magazine Editor

STEM courses and students constitute a dynamic pillar of our society. Without these insightful individuals, many of the technological advances that drive our everyday lives and even transport routes would not be in our lives. With these pressing tasks, however, comes pressure – the need for the newest research, tech or simply cramming an inordinate plethora of information.

Students are more overqualified than ever before. Completing a PhD is now standard to enter the research industry without a corresponding raise in pay. LinkedIn is a performative circus, with peers seeming to achieve a blur of endless successes. This culminates in a massive but often unspoken pressure in scientific and medical courses. Given the tragic deaths within our own college community, it is time to address and improve the mental health support in our society.

On a personal note, I am a student of microbiology – so take it from me when I say that the devil is in the details, sometimes down to the tiniest microbe. It seems as though there is a constant flurry of information that needs to be synthesised about a single microbe, let alone the one trillion species on Earth and counting.

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Did I mention that apparently we haven’t discovered 99.999 per cent of them yet? You can see how that can be a little overwhelming from time to time. However, I am not alone in this fact – keeping on top of research is crucial in the STEM disciplines. Read and research constantly, or you’ll be left behind on current technologies.

Although I myself am something of a chatterbox, a considerable proportion of STEM students tend to be on the introverted side, often bottling up negative feelings instead of accessing mental health services where needed.

We spoke with Mike Walsh, a student of the School of Medicine at Trinity, to find out how he manages the balance of coursework while keeping a tab on mental wellbeing. Walsh found the workload to be “overwhelming” at times. “A good routine can make it manageable, but it probably does require some students to make some sacrifices in their social lives but that’s just par for the course really. Once you figure out a routine and how to balance both work and life, it becomes a lot more manageable.” 

Speaking on the pressure associated with medical courses, he acknowledged that “there is definitely a competitive aspect to the course. Most students in medicine place huge value in intelligence and therefore everyone wants to be the smartest in the room”.

This atmosphere definitely contributes to poor mental health – “if you find yourself falling behind with your studies, things can snowball easily and you can feel swamped in no time at all. I think this fear of falling behind is always in the back of your mind and can therefore drive feelings of guilt when you take breaks. That’s probably a universal feeling across all STEM disciplines, as students place so much value in always being on top of the latest material which can be detrimental to their mental health.”

Intense workloads and strict deadlines are not the only source of mental strain on some students – such an industry can also be highly male-dominated. It has been documented that more women in doctoral programs in STEM will terminate their studies in comparison to men and therefore limit their academic career due to poor mental health.

A report by the National Science Foundation investigated female students coming towards the end of the doctoral programmes and found that the number of women finishing their degree was as low as 32 per cent in physics and 23 per cent in engineering, with women of colour plummeting to an even lower figure of 2 per cent completion. 

These figures can be attributed towards daily stressors within the STEM and medical education layout that may induce feelings of depression and anxiety among these individuals. For example, ​​a survey of the workplace interactions of 474 female astronomers and planetary scientists was conducted and identified that an astounding 40 per cent of women of colour reported feeling vulnerable at work due their gender or sex.

Additionally, 18 per cent of women of colour and 12 per cent of white women said they intentionally missed career events as they felt it unsafe to attend, further disadvantaging them to potential opportunities because of the gender disparity within STEM. 

It is clearly an area of higher education that needs to be destigmatized and revitalised for more inclusive future pathways. Lisa Cordos, a second-year medicine student echoed this belief. “The sheer workload of Medicine is unbelievable and due to its nature, long hours and high stress situations with a lot of responsibility it can be very physically and mentally taxing on a person. Pressure within a clinical setting usually comes top-bottom – higher up figures tend to be the ones who expect more.” 

Cordos recalls that even in her first year of studies, the coursework was highly intense, with several lectures a day while her peers in other courses had the same amount in an entire week. “Coming from the Leaving Cert, going straight into such a densely packed course like Medicine was challenging. The shift from being the high achiever in secondary school to sometimes being able to just get by in classes was jarring. The weighting for these modules was also quite heavy, so there was a lot of pressure on us even at the very start to do well. Many of my peers had to do repeats of entire modules even if they only failed one component.” 

Cordos feels that this is the main driver of poor mental health within her field, recalling her own personal experience with student mental health services. “Mental health awareness is such an important issue, especially in light of the suicide within medicine last year. Earlier this year I decided to reach out to the student counselling service, who deemed it necessary for me to come back and have regular appointments with a psychologist. Initially I was delighted. I felt I had been heard and was getting the help I needed – I was struggling with college at the time, after receiving Christmas exam results.”

However, she quickly found these supports insufficient. The help was “not there in a timely manner – they put me on a waiting list in March and then only got confirmation of a psychologist appointment in June. By that point I had already received my summer exam results and my mental health had worsened, which was disappointing to say the least”. 

This experience is one of many. Figures from a report by Trinity’s Student Counselling Service published in the last quarter of 2021/2022 indicate that there were already a record-breaking number of students accessing the service at that point – 2,525 had been in contact, with the wait being three to four months in some cases.

Within Trinity’s STEM courses, we have had four tragic suicides in the past four years. In light of this, students agreed enough was enough and demanded better mental health support to be implemented.

Mike Walsh echoed this need for change. “Personally, I think the online supports and tools are a positive move on the colleges behalf but are sometimes inadequate to students’ needs. It is hard for students experiencing poor mental health to come forward and seek help so it’s important that the support is there for them as soon as required.”

It is important to acknowledge that STEM and medical academics can also be highly rewarding. Cordos says she wouldn’t trade her occupation for anything else: “Despite this, I am so grateful to be studying medicine – it is clear the wonderful impact that doctors can have on a patient’s life, and that to me is so rewarding. An adequate doctor will just tend to the physical needs of the patients, whereas a brilliant doctor will also provide a personable touch, and that’s what I aspire to do.” 

It’s also worth noting that graduates of STEM and medicine are generally highly sought-after in careers specific to or outside of their discipline due to their critical thinking and clear dedication. It is imperative to restructure mental health services and provide proper funding to support individuals who are such integral parts of our society.

The University Times also spoke with Chloe Staunton, the TCDSU welfare officer, for further information about the current counselling supports available. “I am in regular conversations with the student counselling service and I can wholeheartedly say that the individuals that work there genuinely care about their jobs and are doing their utmost for the students they offer services to. Passion and care are not things that TCD Counselling lack, and it is certainly no secret that additional funding would help expand the services. This is something I am acutely aware of and am certainly advocating for in my role.” 

Staunton explained that the service is actively partaking in studies to better their future provisions. “Information is power, and the information they hope to gather will absolutely contribute to how services are run and what’s on offer.”

Staunton also advised that “if any student is struggling mentally, they should absolutely get in touch with the student counselling service. I fear that in discussing the shortfalls we can make some students feel alienated or feel that they cannot use these services due to their demands. I urge any students needing help to ask for it, regardless of what trends we see publicly. Help will always be available to anyone needing it.” 

“Even if there are waiting lists for one-to-one counselling, additional supports will always be offered to the student. They also offer emergency appointments every day, so if a student requires this they can request it.”

If you have been affected by, or would like to discuss, the issues raised in this article, you can contact the Welfare Officer of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union by emailing [email protected] Emergency appointments with the Student Counselling Service are also available. You can phone Niteline, the student listening service, every night of term from 9pm–2:30am on 1800 793 793, or the Samaritans at any time on 116 123.

 

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