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Mental Wellness in STEM

I (Jessie) have been in research for over 20 years and a mental health counselor since 2020. Being in the sciences is amazing, stimulating, and challenging (in good and bad ways). There are some obvious reasons why it's so challenging, like long hours, teaching, writing proposals and papers, and managing a lot (projects, budgets, people, administrative duties, panels, committees, etc).

There was a time when I was really struggling, and I reflected on the less-obvious issues that were contributing to a decline in my mental and emotional wellbeing. As I became more vocal about how I was feeling, others came out of the woodwork to share that they were experiencing something similar. I felt less alone but also saddened at how much people struggled in silence while not having the resources or institutional support & safety to talk about what was happening. There was (and still is) a sense of helplessness or hopelessness because it has been unclear how to remedy the situation, other than individuals seeking counseling as they determine if remaining in a STEM career is good choice for their own well-being. 

rainbows in the rain

Art by Jessie Young-Robertson

I believe this pathway of reflection is what pushed me to return to school and get a Masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Given that I stand in both worlds (mental health and science), I feel I have a unique perspective to bring to the conversation about mental wellbeing, including psychological safety, in STEM.  It becomes a classic case of "is it me, you, us, or this situation".

Please note that we each only truly know our own perspectives, experiences, and journeys. I don't know what it's like to be you or what it's like to be someone from a marginalized population. My perspective is grounded in the culture of the U.S., so scientists from other cultures may have different feelings and perspectives on this matter. My hope for readers of this page is that there is something you can take away that supports you in your journey.

On this page, I will share information about the other parameters that make STEM so challenging, psychological safety, burnout, and aspects of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (distress tolerance, emotion regulation, mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness) and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (your thoughts affect your feelings) that you can apply to your life or learn more about.

Click here to access resources about distress & emotion management in STEM careers.

I've recently wondered if low psychological safety contributes to mental health challenges, burnout, reduced productivity, high turnover, and low diversity in STEM fields.

What is psychological safety?

autumn leaf

“a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. … shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” (Edmonson, 1999)

"being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career" (Kahn 1990)

Psychological safety as part of group norms -

“the traditions, behavioral standards, and unwritten rules that govern how teams function when they gather... Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound.“

a group-level phenomenon, established and reinforced by leadership

Google study found that psychological safety was the number one predictor of employee productivity and satisfaction

From Nir Eyal

“Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”

“Psychological safety is the antidote to unhealthy work environments.”

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