Monday, August 7, 2017

Graduate student mental health and suicide in this week's C&EN

In this week's issue of Chemical and Engineering News, an important and sobering story by Jyllian Kemsley on the life and 2016 death by suicide of Anna Owensby, a 4th-year graduate student in the Department of Molecular Medicine at Scripps in La Jolla, CA.

The story is long and convoluted enough that I hesitate to summarize it. It is worth reading in full, if only to understand who Anna Owensby was, the complex interplay between her and her advisers and the response of the institution to her situation, which ultimately ended with Scripps' removing her from their program, and her subsequent death by suicide.

I am still formulating all of my thoughts about this, but I will say this: I don't know about you, but I read about the 1998 death by suicide of Jason Altom when I was a graduate student in the mid-2000s, and it shocked me to my core. My department didn't have much in the way of mental health resources in the mid-2000s. It is plainly amazing to me that graduate research institutions are still playing catch-up in addressing the potential for mental health problems in their midst. (In the article, you can read a bit about both the University of Minnesota and Harvard's efforts to promote good mental health in their departments.)

I hope that this article will remind the academic chemistry community that this problem hasn't gone away. Read the whole thing. 

36 comments:

  1. That is a really sobering story. I wonder what percentage of those students forced out of graduate school attempt suicide especially those who like Owensby successfully got past the first few years before being terminated. From the article we know many more attempt it than those who actually succeed.

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  2. These are very serious issues that don't get the proper attention. I was a graduate student at the time of Mr. Altom's suicide and didn't really know much about it until the NY Times article (pre-social media, etc. - word got around by (literally) word of mouth). Maybe as the "old guard" of PI's are starting to transition out the new PI's will be more cognizant of their students' well-being. Or, at the very least, students now have a larger voice due to social media.

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  3. I was in grad school a few years after Jason Altom (at another department). I heard through the grapevine that Harvard had made a bunch of changes that quickly fell by the wayside, and everything there was back to "business as usual" within a few years. At my own department, I'm not aware of any changes made in response to this incident, but I heard there was a brief period when it got some lip service (but no policy or cultural changes).

    The article made some good points about the differences between the undergrad and grad transitions. Grad school is a much more isolated environment, while an incoming undergrad freshman would have to try really hard to not make friends. In my case, I did eventually make friends, but all of them were in the same toxic environment as me - other grad students couldn't see how ridiculous the whole thing was.

    The article's discussion of Anna's previous mental health issues is relevant, but will have the unfortunate effect of making it easier for the academic community to brush this off. They'll say something like "This doesn't apply to my grad students; this girl was crazy to begin with." I've never been diagnosed with any mental health problem or been to a psychiatrist, but I came dangerously close to being like Anna. I used to think about killing myself all the time, and the scary thing is, a lot of the ideas I had could have been carried out quickly and impulsively - I probably would have chickened out of a multi-step plan such as procuring a gun, but it would have been easy for me to step in front of a truck or jump off a building.

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  4. Mental health issues are a nasty brew. I had the experience of working with a supervisor who exhibited symptoms much like Anna. The paranoia, the accusations, and meanwhile you try to keep your employer-funded health insurance. The institute would be unsupportive, and eventually I had to call security to head off physical violence.

    I guess what I'm saying is that it's hard to be sympathetic when your own survival is at risk due to other persons' actions.

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    1. My daughter had trouble regulating her emotions but she loved people unless they were either invalidating her, isolating or ignoring her. She would scream and cry but never, ever hurt anyone physically. I love and miss my loving daughter everyday who just wanted to try living on her own and ended up taking her own life. I miss her smiling face, her determination, her great sense of humor and there are so many memories that are still too painful to remember. Be careful of what you say about people. They may be only your perceptions.

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    2. First off, I'm extremely saddened by your loss.

      I see Anon 11:21 AM's point in that there are certainly cases where the person experiencing issues is also hurting those around them. I can't comment on your daughter's situation since everything I know about it is from this one article. It is not the person's fault, but it happens.

      I've seen a case firsthand where someone was abrasive and confrontational to the point where all of his classmates were afraid to attend class. They suffered as well.

      It's tough because you want to do right by everybody. Sometimes, unfortunately, that's just not possible. In the situation in the previous paragraph, people tried to understand the fellow and get him help for three semesters. It didn't work and eventually he had to be expelled for the sake of the other students.

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  5. This article is depressing.

    1) I sort of hate to use someone's good intentions against them, but I will anyway. If Scripps and her advisor both knew that Ms. Owensby would likely react poorly to obstacles (because they helped with therapy), then why didn't they do anything when they summarily separated her from lab? Her advisor was probably feeling angry and betrayed himself, but that shouldn't delete his responsibilities. Objective circumstances existed that made suicide likely (being separated from your work, being unlikely to do what you trained years to do, and shortly being homeless would seem to be disturbing experiences for anyone), and no one seemed to care. If they took the emotional difficulties of Ms. Owensby's position as just consequences, then their condolences should be viewed in that light. If not, then, it seems like Scripps and Ms. Owensby's advisor had enough information to think there might be a problem and didn't do anything. (It doesn't seem like Scripps or Ms. Owensby's advisor talked to C+EN about this, and I can guess why.)

    2) I think it's hard for graduate school safety measures to do much because it seems that the system is designed to not take the lives of students into account. In the article, it seems a foregone conclusion (by Scripps) that Ms. Owensby had done what was accused and that she would be punished however they wished - there were no substantiative protections for her, and no expectation of consistent or just enforcement (did the other person accused of hacking her advisor's laptop receive similar punishment?). If you do something (or accuse a professor or administrator of doing something), you are unlikely to be treated fairly or taken seriously (the long list of grad students cashiered for their advisors' malfeasance testifies to this). Your advisor has almost complete control over your future; if you annoy them, they can essentially prevent you from working in the field you have spent up to ten years or your life training in. You spend most of your time with a small set of people, with the expectation that you always should be working. These features are common to other fields (though those fields tend to have more danger in execution - police and military), and those fields are known for having significant health issues. The structure of education, though, means that these consequences aren't inherent to the process - it's just easier and cheaper that way.

    My advisor and department supported me and were good to me, but depending on the goodness of people with near-absolute power is not a sufficient measure to ensure the safety or health of graduate students. Making it clear that they matter would, but that seems like an uncommon and more expensive response, and so not often followed.

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  6. What steps should another graduate student take if they feel that a fellow student exhibits behavior consistent with severe depression, personality disorder, etc.?

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    1. There is a strong anti-snitching culture in grad school, whether it's reporting that your advisor is doing something shady with research funds, your labmate fudged some data in a publication, or your friend might be a suicide risk. Having spent time at a big university and having seen the ugly side of academia, the Jerry Sandusky thing at Penn State doesn't surprise me one bit.

      Another obstacle I see to the reporting of concerns about suicidal friends is that behaviors that would be conspicuous signs of distress elsewhere, like crying, talking openly about suicide, or getting blackout drunk, are pretty much normal in grad school. Since most grad students are far from home, this stuff is usually only seen by other grad students who think nothing of it, rather than relatives or non-academic friends who would be rightly alarmed.

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    2. One place to start might be the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's "Have an Honest Conversation" tip sheet, available here:
      https://afsp.org/campaigns/look-ways-mental-health-awareness-month-2017/mental-health-community/

      You could also speak with a mental health clinician yourself to describe the situation confidentially in more detail.

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    3. Personally, get in touch with a mental health professional. Most colleges (definitely all larger ones) will have psychology graduate students equipped to deal with the scenario and will be more than happy to help you. If not, the national hotlines for mental health will also be happy to help you in navigating future conversations.

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  7. Very saddening, and my most sincere condolences are with the family. I also remember the Jason Altom story mentioning that right after Altom's death, Harvard chemistry offered to pay for student mental health counseling, but that this service was rescinded a few months/years later. Wonder what the situation is like now.

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  8. Curious that the article mentions Harvard, but only in the context of a suicide from two decades ago

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    1. Because the article is about the suicide of a graduate student?

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    2. Many graduate student suicides are unreported, especially from certain privileged institutions. Unclear whether this is due to family wishes, or due to suppression of facts

      Recent post on this topic: http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/2016/11/a-depressing-post-about-graduate.html

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    3. Anon8:15, I think you should consider two things:

      1. The media has guidelines about how suicides are reported. Most organizations follow those guidelines, and I have tried to as well. These guidelines are not about suppressing facts, it's about attempting to avoid inducing suicidal ideation on the part of others.
      2. Of the relevant cases that many may be aware of, no media attention has been sought by the families (that I am aware of). Surely this is understandable, and most in the scientific press are going to respect those wishes.

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    4. I would probably hazard a guess and say many suicides are not reported (regardless of whether they are graduate students or not) and not because of a "suppression of facts"; but rather because it may not be news for the greater public. And then the other part is due to respect for the families wishes. Not everything is nefarious in not reporting these things. Should universities publish these, at least, anonymously? If they happen on university property, probably, otherwise I wouldn't think so.

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    5. Schools must also abide by student (FERPA) and medical (HIPPA) privacy laws.

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    6. I think there are a lot of cases where a suicide can look like an accident, so it would be hard to get good data even if these stories weren't kept quiet (not necessarily for nefarious reasons as pointed out above).

      As for families not wanting attention, most of them probably have no idea how toxic grad school culture is, and believe that their own child's suicide was an isolated incident. I think we'd be seeing a lot more activism and demands for change (such as parents often do after a fraternity hazing death) if the families knew what academic culture is really like.

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    7. Agree that parents may want more demands for change if they knew graduate school was a contributing factor. Graduate school culture CAN be toxic (not always); but that is a really hard one to pin down unless there is a note or the student confided in someone. Culture can be toxic and a suicide still be an isolated incident; or it can be the prime contributing factor.

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  9. It was a difficult to read, especially her concern for getting a job and having a good career in the future.

    I had a difficult time through grad school and post-doc because of my parents expectation I would get a "great job" after I got a PhD (although I got the degree, I didn't get a "great job" and still don't have one). I think a lot of the problem is american culture, and that you my think are nothing until you go out there and make a lot of money with a high status job. This is not the case, even though people that should care about you may think that. This is an expectation that appears to be found in a lot of the kids I teach at (R1 state university) as well, who are horrified on the thought of receiving a "C" as a grade.

    I kind of wish out culture would go back to the 1960's where a high status job was not expected, and it was perfectly fine to take a path that was not high status and didnt pay well. God help you if you have this attitude today, when even family members often expect you to be a "star".

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    1. Part of the problem with that is that the jobs that didn't need you to be a star (manufacturing, etc.), still paid well. These jobs have almost disappeared.

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    2. A below-average chemistry PhD who's stuck in a crappy job or perma-postdoc would probably be a manager at any cubicle farm. I like being a scientist, but I wouldn't recommend it to a young person.

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    3. @KT, I agree with you there. I have a few post-bachelors and currently-in-undergrad techs working with me and they've asked me about graduate school or, in the case of the non-bachelor's students, about what to study. I told the guy who wants an MS to solely get an MS, do not get a PhD unless it's in a top 10 program, and recommended to the current undergrads to pursue something like engineering or a way to get into program management or to avoid science altogether.

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    4. "I kind of wish out culture would go back to the 1960's where a high status job was not expected"

      I didn't live in the 60s, but I don't think human nature has changed that much in the past 50 years.

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    5. Human nature has not changed, but there was definitely better job security back then, expectations were not insanely high and the jealously engendered by inequality was much lower because the rich didn't look like they were from another planet. Sure, people didn't make as much money but they also didn't need that much. I too wish that some of our culture could go back to then (and no, not in a Trumpian "MAGA" sense).

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    6. One bit of advice I would give to undergrads considering a MS:

      Top graduate programs like the one I attended do not accept terminal master's students, except for special programs such as high school teaching and military. You can "backdoor" your way in by applying to a PhD program and switching over to the coursework master's track early. Had I switched over early in the game (if I had made the decision over the summer after my first year) I could have quit my research group, signed up for some courses and a TA assignment in the fall semester, and been out of there in 1.5 years with a MS. If you plan it this way, you can get a master's from a top program without paying a dime of tuition, and a stipend to boot.

      I know doing what I described is frowned upon, but I really don't have much sympathy for academics.

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  10. A guy tried to kill himself literally in lab one morning at my graduate school while I was a student there. Though it was not in my lab, of course the news spread like wildfire. Somehow he was allowed back in lab not too long after the event and now holds a pretty good job in large pharma. Not sure what sort of support was offered but nothing was changed policy-wise by our grad school in my tenure there, likely due to HIPAA privacy and fear of exposing what he was going through, though I imagine it will be a gradual change until it is forgotten.

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    1. did this involve thallium, by any chance? Just asking because it sounds eerily similar to someone from my university/department, and just wondering if we were at the same place.

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  11. In grad school, a fellow student in my lab experienced a few days/nights of increasingly crazy behavior that culminated in his threatening violence toward our PI and everyone in the lab. Security removed him and he was kicked out of our lab. However, a few weeks later he was rehired by a different professor in the same department...that shared a lab space with us. So I had the "pleasure" to continue seeing him in lab every day. I don't know if any mental health services were provided to him but I definitely know that none were offered to those of us who were threatened. I was anxious and honestly scared whenever I was in the lab without too many people around. Thankfully, the troubled individual left a few months later. Looking back at the experience after being in industry for almost a decade now still gives me goosebumps. I'm thankful that nonsense would not fly where I work today.

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    1. A very similar scenario happened at the institution where I'm a current grad student. Several instances including showing up to lab drunk, accusations of other lab members, actively pursuing students he was TA'ing, all of which culminated in him leaving the university. Turns out this guy was a chronic liar, while also being involved with police multiple times for domestic abuse and such. It's amazing that these situations happen among us all the time. (even in a possibly more transparent culture now as opposed to the past)

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  12. Unfortunately, this is so common. See example where UCLA terminated a student upon the student disclosing his/her disabilities.

    www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/investigations/more/09142015-a.pdf

    The Regents of the University of California may like to set out an example for other institutions to follow.

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  13. I see a lot of “blaming the victim” in the Anna Owensby case. Who were the villains? What happened to change Wolan’s evaluation of Anna from highly positive on March 13th to exiling and excommunicating/silencing her on March 16th? Those of us who work in labs commonly have others rummage around our workspaces. That is common place and I have never seen it used as grounds for dismissal, let alone such aggression on the part of faculty and administration. What is going on there?

    Rumor has it that in the March 2016 three day time period someone disclosed to Wolan that his desktop was exposed in 2014. Further it is rumored that the desktop contained inappropriate and possibly illegal interactions. Did the person reporting the rummaging also report the access to Wolan’s desktop? Exposed content in this manner would explain the time-line and why Wolan insisted on limiting Anna’s interaction with others in the Scripps community. Otherwise, why silence her?

    Wolan some how being exposed explains why Wolan would get aggressive and silence Anna. Why would Scripps pile on? One is drawn to the idea that Wolan was part of some group activity centered around those in power at Scripps. That sounds like a conspiracy theory, but how else does one explain why the powers that be acted so aggressively? I have never seen a student silenced; not ever.

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  14. Another rumor is that Scripps refused to grant Anna an exiting master’s degree, further limiting her future. Does anyone know if that is true? One has to ask, why was Scripps so aggressive and nasty to a fourth year student? One might suspect that this was Scripps “Harvey Weinstein” or worse moment. I have heard it mentioned at conferences that Scripps has a history of anti-women as well as anti-student incidents.

    Abruptly cutting off ones income as well as future chances of employment, discrediting years of hard work by not granting an exit degree, and shutting off all access to friends and colleagues in one’s lab seems harsh for rummaging around in someone’s workspace for a pen. It does not add up. In my decades I have never heard of treatment this severe even for hostile students. I have heard that Scripps has offices with bullet proof glass. Is that a joke; one can only guess. Scripps knew Anna was in a fragile state. Were they trying to push her over the edge? What is going on at Scripps and what are they covering up?

    We all know that graduate education is a ponzi scheme. PIs control what students publish and where they publish and there is an unspoken mafia controlling all aspects of academic jobs. Having benefited for decades from this system does not soften the despair in seeing eager young faces, year after year, trying to get into the field while being used as low paid labor and crushed. We all have some guilt.

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    1. Thank you for raising questions surrounding the events that took place at Scripps and as you say their "harsh" treatment of Anna. I can tell you with certainty that Anna was unfortunately not given the option of receiving her Masters degree.

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