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The Black Hole

Postdoctoral collapse – what can you do to help?

If we see a colleague with a fever, we say “go home and rest.” Why can’t we treat mental illness with the same understanding?


Today, I want to revisit the story David told in his last post. Someone he knew collapsed, became addicted to crystal meth and ended up homeless. We all wonder after such a story – could this have been prevented? Overall, it is difficult to provide a single answer and there is no one person to blame but I hope that after reading the list below, you will feel like you can help (even if it is only in a small way).

Get rid of the stigma

Mental health still seems to be the elephant in the room. We do not know how to react to it as a concept and we definitely don’t know how to handle people that suffer from mental health issues. We are “the crazy ones”, we are “damaged.” When I returned to work, I couldn’t help but observe that some of my old colleagues (and good friends!) did not know how to behave around me. I remember one colleague in particular scanning me all the time, as if he expected me to have a spontaneous meltdown any moment. Academic life can be extremely stressful and alarming rates of depression and burnout have been identified in recent years. It is time we learned how to deal with them in a more professional manner. If we see a colleague with a fever, we say “go home and rest.” Why can’t we treat mental illness with the same understanding? If given proper care and time to rest, the person will be able to recover (or at least acquire methods to cope with it). Either way, most of us will be able to return to the workforce and (if we still want them) to our old jobs.

Get involved

Who knows us best? Family, friends… and our peers. Fellow PhD students and postdocs, technicians and students. These are the people that will most likely be the first to notice when our behaviour changes. While we all have supervisors, we often see them less frequently and also try to put our best foot forward. Helping someone we suspect is not well should not be solely down to our supervisors – we should all feel responsible for each other. If you see a colleague change their behaviour, talk to them – tell them that you noticed! If it feels like a major change, then tell them that you are worried. Tell them that they may want to speak with a professional, be that a coach or a doctor. Next, if you feel like action has to be taken and they are not doing anything, talk about it with your supervisor. My colleagues on numerous occasions reported to my boss that I was getting cynical and closed myself off. They also told me again and again that I had changed and that I was not well and eventually I made an appointment and got referred to a psychologist. If it were not for my colleagues, my burnout could have been far worse and I dread to think how bad it could have become.

Reflect:  It could be happening to you

With burnout, those that suffer from it are the last ones to notice – I certainly never thought it would happen to me. After all, mental illness is not really tangible, it’s not exactly a broken arm. But come to think of it, you actually CAN see it. Every morning, you get up and look in the mirror and there she is – the exhausted, sad figure that once was you. This new person sits alone on the couch at night consuming a questionable substance passing for food and is heartbreakingly alone. When did this person decide it was normal to go and cry on the department’s toilet at least twice a week? And why does her family, friends and colleagues all tell her the same thing: “You are not yourself, you are not well, you need help.” Some people went so far as to suggest that I was in danger of hurting myself, patients, colleagues, friends and family – and they were right.

From my experience with burnout and those with whom I’ve shared stories, most people recovered after getting proper help and some – gasp – actually came out of it stronger and more sure of themselves. I am one of them. But it is you that needs to be strong enough to take the first step, so pay attention to yourself and to those around you that are worried. Then, if things aren’t sitting quite right – go and ask for help. Talk about your health with a doctor, psychologist or coach. Maybe simply ask for advice from colleagues you know that have been through something similar. If you want to, drop me a line – but please do not try and fight it on your own, ask for help!

Dr. Sabrina Zeddies is a postdoctoral fellow at the University Medical Center Utrecht, The Netherlands. She works at the hospital pharmacy as head of QC and project manager for new advanced therapy medicincal product (ATMP) projects.
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