Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Status of Mental Health in Planetary Science

This is a repost of Dr. Angela Zalucha's piece for the Women in Planetary Science Blog. Please see her original post here.

About Dr. Angela Zalucha: Angela Zalucha received her PhD in atmospheric science from MIT in 2010. She now works at the SETI Institute modeling the dynamics of planetary atmospheres. She currently lives in Boulder, CO where she enjoys skiing and volunteering in the clinic at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley.

I meant to write this article yesterday. That’s not a statement of procrastination. I suffer from depression, which was triggered a few years ago by events directly related to my career. The symptoms of depression are different from person to person. For me, I have to go lay in bed, in silence. Tasks like getting up to heat leftover pizza up in the microwave are insurmountable. So I wasn’t exactly up to the task of writing a blog article, even if it was about the condition I suffer from.

But I’ve already talked too much about mental health for our society’s comfort. It’s strange, really. Physicians recommend yearly check-ups for they physical aspects of the body. Yet we don’t go for yearly mental health check-ups. If you break your arm, you’ll see a triage nurse, a radiologist, a clinician, and maybe a surgeon and physical therapist. Nobody tells you you shouldn’t seek treatment, and you probably aren’t going to have second thoughts about going to urgent care or the emergency room (unless you have an emotional reaction to hospitals). So why when your brain gets “injured” in a psychological way is there a stigma about seeing a medical professional? Why do I feel like I have to lie about going to therapy appointments? Why can I tell only my most trusted family and friends about my condition?

College and professional sports teams have medical professionals on staff to attend to injuries, in real time, on the field. Game play halts until that person is able to be safely removed from the game or return to play. The audience claps out of respect. The media talks about injury reports for players and how long they’ll be unable to play. As scientists, our minds are our most important trait. Where are our high-profile, professional trainers? Why don’t we get put on the injury list when our minds are hurt?

So far, it has been up to the individual to get help for themselves, not always with the critical support they need, with regards to mental issues. But after speaking out at meetings about what as I see as an epidemic of mental health illnesses in our community, total strangers came up to me and thanked me for my words. Young, old, male, female, reinforcing this idea of an epidemic. I worry for the ones who did not approach me, or the ones who aren’t even aware they might need help, what jeopardy their lives are in. As a professional society, we cannot ignore a situation that is affecting so many of its members, a crisis that impacts our most valuable asset. When our minds hurt, our productivity as a community hurts. Our shared passion hurts. Our colleagues hurt. Our friends hurt.

How are we going to solve this issue? I don’t know yet, but somebody had to mention the invisible elephant in the room. We can figure this out.