Interviewer: Fabiola Cañete Leyva, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Mexico
Mental health is a rising concern among students and academics all over the world.
Along with the coronavirus pandemic, many university members have noted in their peers— and in themselves—an increase in mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and burnout syndrome.
In order to mitigate this problem, many academic communities have started to talk openly about the subject, as a way to promote awareness and offer support to their members. That is the main motivation behind the Well-being Sessions initiative led by Cihad Gözsüz at IAPS.
In this interview, the next in a series of jIAPS interviews, we feature a conversation with Cihad where we discuss the objectives of this initiative and the mental health challenges that many physics students face through their academic journeys.
‘Hello Cihad. Can you tell us about what you are studying and where?
I was studying physics in Dortmund, Germany. But, I have recently switched to studying psychology at the University of Braunschweig, also in Germany.
If you don’t mind me asking, why the sudden change?
There were several reasons but everything was triggered by the recent pandemic. During Covid, a lot of things happened. In terms of mental health, I was not feeling very well and neither did a lot of my friends. That is why I became invested in the direction of mental health and started volunteering in that area. Ultimately, that is what led me to want to study psychology full-time.
Why is it important to address mental well-being among physics students?
Mental health is essential for everyone but it is crazy to realize how many science students struggle, especially during their Ph.D., which is an intense and time-consuming period. You often hear students talk about things like burnout and other stress-related issues. By listening to people, you notice that mental health is not often talked about in the physics community. That is why I believe it is important to start addressing this topic.
Is there a personal experience that you may want to share?
Yeah, so, I was actually never in real therapy. My worst days were during the Covid pandemic. At that time it was really difficult to get a place in therapy. And in my case, I didn’t notice that I had anything to worry about. No symptoms from my childhood or anything. But, I had self-esteem problems that do trace back to childhood trauma, I believe. There were some problems with the way my parents raised me. I don’t blame them, of course, because they had their own experiences as well. But I consider that there was a lack of care given, I think. They never really showed that I had value for them or maybe the way that they expressed it was not very obvious.
Then, unfortunately, I also had a bad time in school.
On top of that, another circumstance that has had a big impact on my life also was a romantic relationship of seven years. When it ended, things that I didn’t notice before came rolling back to me. The breakup led me to believe that suddenly I was not important to the people around me. I started to feel like a burden to everyone and to think that it would be better not to have friends at all, in that way I would not be able to hurt them as well.
Then, with the loneliness from the pandemic, those feelings escalated. I started to punish myself, in my head, and eventually, I even had suicidal thoughts.
I am just very grateful that at that point other things happened that helped me. I met people that showed care and with time I got over that phase in my life. All this motivated me to show more care to others. I realized that I did not care much about others or myself before. So, I wanted to change. My main motivation was that I knew how difficult it can be to go through this on your own, so I wanted to help others in the same situation.
Mental health is a relatively new topic, do you think that mental health has worsened over the last few years? If so, what do you think are the reasons?
This is a difficult question! Personally, I don’t know if there are any statistics on this topic. The modern world does not feel like it is made for mental health though. When you consider things like digitalization, for instance. We spend a lot of time on social media, and paradoxically, while it does connect people, it also creates some distancing among us. There is some kind of masking going on when people post online how well they are doing, when maybe, in reality, they are not doing so great. But then again, the digital age has also brought us awareness about mental health and other topics that were not openly discussed before. And social media has also played a part in this. So I can’t really say if things are getting better or worse.
What is the main objective of the Mental well-being chat sessions?
The objective is to create a safe atmosphere for whoever wants to participate and discuss how they are doing so we can be there for each other. For the mental well-being sessions, I start by inviting people to a meeting. And then I ask people how they are feeling right now or if there is anything that they are dealing with at the moment. We also talk about the good things that happen to us, of course. Sometimes there is a funny story to tell, sometimes not. And if you don’t want to share anything that is also ok. The point of all these sessions is to share our thoughts and connect with other people. The more open we are, I feel like the bond between us gets stronger.
In your perspective, what is the principal barrier faced by students with mental health problems? Can it be society, their family, or maybe even themselves?
I think there can’t be just one thing to blame here. It is usually the sum of everything. Maybe the school system can be better. Society also plays an important role but I would say it is hard to pinpoint a single reason here. This is a hard question!
What kind of impact do these setbacks have on the academic performance of physics students?
I think it is different for everyone. Some students can perform well, even in these circumstances, and other students struggle a lot. Physics is usually a topic that is very time-consuming. There’s a lot to study in a really short time. But sometimes, people have said to me that it is precisely this kind of anxiety that helps them push themselves harder. In the long run though, in the majority of cases, you can expect burnout at some point.
I remember a study indicating that people with high neuroticism can perform well. However, on average they perform worse than the people who act as a friend to themselves. In summary, being harsh to yourself works well but being nice to yourself has better results.
One observation I can make is that physics students can mask their feelings very well and they can perform efficiently even in hard circumstances. Unfortunately, this can have an impact on the dynamics of the academic environment. For example, if a teacher perceives that students are doing well, they can expect students to start delivering more and so they may increase the workload.
In one of my internships, people often complained about how little time they had for themselves but they pushed themselves anyways so at the end of the day if you are having a hard time you start thinking, it sucks but if people get through it then I can do it too. What I am trying to say is that because people in physics might be great at masking their emotions and being high performers, the expectations in the field rise even more.
Do you think that physics students are somehow at a higher risk of suffering mental health problems?
Yeah, I think that there are some statistics on this topic. Ph.D. students are more often struggling than the average student. A certain percentage of normal students themselves suffer from some kind of disorder involving anxiety or depression, but this number goes up if we are talking about Ph.D. students. I once read that about fifty percent of Ph.D. students battled with these problems. I was so impressed that I talked about this with some friends and I remember that one person said, I can’t believe it is just fifty percent! The truth is that a Ph.D. is in itself a hard thing to do and these kinds of experiences just discourage people from pursuing it, sadly.
What kind of initiatives do you think are necessary to mitigate this problem?
I wish I had an answer here. There are too many aspects that play a role in this phenomenon. One thing that can help mitigate this problem, I believe, is to encourage people to be open about this topic, to look for help, and also to hold the kind of sessions we do here in IAPS.
What has been your favourite IAPS event or activity so far?
Any in-person event is great for me because I get to meet most of my IAPS friends. The last big event I remember is the PLANCKS event. We organised it in Munich and I got to spend a lot of time with the friends that I made through the Internet. It was quite a surreal experience.
What advice would you give to anyone who is thinking of coming along to a Mental Health and Wellbeing Session?
I would tell them that the sessions are a safe place to share whatever they want and it is also a great place to make friends. For the people that may not be so sure about joining, I would tell them that their participation during the sessions is completely up to them. They can opt to be there and just be willing to listen to people and if at some point they feel uncomfortable, they can leave, of course. I always give a disclaimer. People in the mental health chat session are not professional. So if someone feels that they need some serious mental health help, I always encourage them to seek professional help. The mental health sessions are just like regular conversations where we talk about different things. It is normal to be afraid but usually when you have joined two or three times that feeling goes away. The best part is to connect with people and just be there for each other.
Cihad, thank you so much for your answers and for the wonderful work done leading this mental health initiative.‘
Find out more about the Mental Health and Wellbeing Sessions on the IAPS Discord.