In 2019, a group of marine scientists published a letter in Science calling for academic institutions to pay attention to the mental health of environmental scientists. For over a decade now, the news has covered the mental health impacts of climate disasters on scientists in environmental fields: from Nature, to The Independent, to The Sydney Morning Herald.
Between an ongoing pandemic and climate change radically reorienting how we connect, research, and get into the field, those who work researching the environment and society have many challenges to sustain being a mentally resilient and happy person. It can feel like we’re carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders. So what does mental health look like when you are carrying the world’s problems in your brain, as a job?
This R U OK Day we invited experts in their research fields here at ANU Fenner School - Director Saul Cunningham, Professor Xuemei Bai, Professor Marta Yebra, and Professor David Lindenmayer - to lead the charge in talking about connection, reading the signs in their mental health, and discovering coping strategies while they engage with solutions and problems in an ever-fraught national and global context. Here’s what they had to say.
“When it comes to the kinds of challenges we all share - COVID-19, instability, loss - I’m not particularly prone to being anxious or depressed. For me, it tends to be more-personal and interior things that can upset my mental approach to the world. I’m a pretty positive person, but there are times in my life where I’ve felt a sense of being trapped, I feel there’s no way out of a situation - that the burden of the situation is on me, and nothing’s going to work to change it. You refuse to believe the various solutions that come your way because they all seem useless. When this has happened, I’m usually not aware of it until people who are close to me tell me, ‘Saul, you’re not yourself’.” says Dr Saul Cunningham.
When it comes to indications that Saul’s mental health is changing, he relies on trust, community, and listening, to see the signs.
“I talk to people who are close to me about the problem I’m facing, and when they tell me I’m not myself, I listen and take on board what they’re saying: so I trust people. I tend toward introversion, but a big part of the way out is to connect with people. Sometimes I need to push myself to do that.”
The key to Saul’s welling, though, is getting stuck into some physical activity.
“I need to get outside, be in the breeze and the sun, and make sure I am being active rather than stuck behind a desk. For me the connection between mental health and physical activity is the most obvious and strong treatment I have.”
“Another really small pleasure I take is my process at the end of the day. In the early evening my standard mental health routine during COVID has been to put music on and cook something that will take a while - vegetarian Indian food and Vietnamese pancakes with filling have been popular in my household over the past two weeks. My musical tastes have tended to be stuck in the years of my youth, but strangely I often enjoy things now that I didn’t like then (thank you Spotify).”
Saul’s trick to achieve this simple routine? “I engage in the joy of reasonable working hours: I ignore the little voice that says I’ve got so much work to do and that I’ve got to keep working. Instead, I give myself the little pleasure of saying, ‘No, that’s it for the day.’”
“I know I am not ok when I don’t even try to find the time to cultivate my hobbies. Having time for me to enjoy my hobbies either on my own or with my family and friends is very important for my well-being. Sometimes, I find it extremely tricky to fit my hobbies into my schedule and on a few occasions, I have given up and left those activities temporarily apart so I can keep going with the demanding needs of my job and other life duties. However, that usually has resulted in an unhealthy work-life balance and a stage of constant tiredness and feeling overwhelmed.”
When overwhelm and exhaustion have set in for Marta, it’s signalled a time to prioritise her hobbies. But with so much going on, she’s had to learn to be strategic about how she creates the conditions for that prioritisation.
“A strategy I use is to plan to do things I love simultaneously with family activities or with time with friends. For example, I love photography. Photography is the joy I give myself and I find photographing very relaxing. When I am photographing, I fully disconnect from anything else as I am only focused on the subject I want to photograph and in getting that shot that I can share to get people’s emotions and reactions.”
So with this knowledge, Marta always takes her camera wherever she goes.
“I also started a small photography business that I run over some weekends - it's stress-free so I take a booking whenever is convenient for me but If I accept a booking, I have to find the time to run the session and post-process the images and when I do it, I feel great!”
Another trick Marta has learnt is how to say ‘no’.
“Learning to say “no” has been particularly important to setting better limits on the extras I take at work so that those don't take over the time to do my core activities. I have learnt that I also have the right to says “no” from time to time. So now, when a new opportunity comes, instead of taking it immediately, I pause and carefully analyse the implications of taking that. Do I have the time? Does it need to be me who does that or is there somebody else that is equally suited and may have more time or it may be a better opportunity for him/her? How important is it for me to take this and, if I don’t take it, would that negatively affect somebody else?”
“My research focuses on urbanisation and urban system sustainability. I have been and still am part of many international initiatives and collaborations. This means I have many strict deadlines: frequent international travel in the past - and many oddly timed meetings since COVID-19. My not-OK sign is when I have something that keeps me awake at night, or I realise that I am physically too tired or not as patient as I would like to be.”
Over the years, Xuemei has developed several strategies to deal with these signs.
“When I feel anxious about a task, I try to get it started - even just creating a document with a title and writing a couple of dot points helps make the task seem less daunting. This is a strategy I try to pass on to my students. I’ve also started to gently remind my collaborators/committee members that the Earth is round and nobody is at the centre of it (you would be surprised - this comes as a novelty to many!) therefore we should rotate the meeting times and all share the burden of globalised and at-home meetings. I also learnt to decline tasks without feeling guilty when it becomes too much - after all, you are the only one who knows what’s going on and how you are faring. Finally, taking some time off to recharge is important - I’ve realised it takes at least four days for work-related things to really fade out from my mind.
To recharge and take time off, especially during COVID-19, Xuemei relishes simplicity: walking and delicious things.
“I enjoy my daily walk with my dog in the nature reserve near our house. When it’s raining, I walk on the treadmill at home while watching an episode of a drama or documentary series. Sometimes I’ll start cooking a new recipe (at the moment I am very-much into making raisin sourdough bread or xianbing; steam-fried meat buns), reading a mystery or sci-fi novel, or just listening to my favourite music are some of the things I love to do, especially during the weekend or holidays.”
“I have a high stress threshold and stress management strategies. I think it’s partly to do with previous lives that I had: I trained as a teacher, and teaching kids - especially high school and late primary school students - is very, very stressful, and I learnt how to deal with that, which transferred to my academic working life. I try to minimise stress by being organised a long way ahead.”
Through having structure in his day - dedicating clear hours to writing, student interviews, meetings, and down time, David makes sure to give himself room for the most important way he deals with stress and disappointment in his field.
“There’s lots of stress and disappointment, but the best way I manage those feelings is getting out in the bush. Being outside, walking or riding, bushwalking, those kinds of things for me are really, really important. So under strict lockdown arrangements I can understand how people are really struggling, because that’s a really important part of my life - as a conservation biologist, because that’s what I’m working hard to protect and manage. One of the fundamental parts of what I do, is reminding myself why it’s important to do what I’m doing.”
For David, his sense of joy and pleasure aligns perfectly with this work - and this fills him with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose.
“I get an enormous amount of pleasure out of student completions of their postgraduate work. That to me is wonderful, to see that. I still get a lot of pleasure out of publishing scientific articles and books over many years, that’s still quite a thrill. And as time has gone on, I get a lot of pleasure out of thinking that I can make a scientific contribution, and to me that’s really motivating. And the other thing I get an enormous pleasure out of is doing fieldwork: it’s always given me new insights into how things might be working, and new ideas - I’ve always got pleasure from that. Some of the most functional researchers I know in their 80s are people who still do fieldwork and get out into the bush. I think it keeps them interested, motivated and able to help new generations of young scientists.”
Carrying the world is more than personal strategy
While individually recognising slipping mental health, deploying strategies to remain resilient during stress and overload, and finding avenues for daily joy and pleasure are all paramount to these academics, Director Saul Cunningham’s reliance on networks, conversation, and family and friends reading the signs is one of the key messages celebrated on R U OK Day.
Sharing experiences of finding resources and skills to manage mental health is one way of opening up. Another is reaching out to someone and inviting a conversation about how they are. For tools and strategies to practice your skills of connection and observation, visit the R U OK Day website and check out the stack of resources on offer. And here at The Fenner School of Environment and Society, our inbox is always open.