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Building an international mental health support group for people in science

Zill-e-Anam

Jaishree Subrahmanium is a botanist who did her PhD in ecological genomics from the French National Institute of Agricultural Research. She has recently ventured into science communication, as well as advocacy for equal rights of women and better mental health. She has been working with Lotus STEMM, a Canadian NGO working on representing South Asian women in STEM careers, where she established a mental health support community — Paksh’. We spoke with Jaishree about her experience with this initiative and lessons from the same.

Paksh Featured V2

What motivated you to establish Paksh?

As a masters’ student, I harboured a dream of going abroad to study. Apart from experiencing a new culture, I wanted to explore the world. A lot of international students have the same dreams. I ended up moving to a country where I did not speak the language and did not know anybody except for my supervisor whom I had met only once before. The culture shock was huge. I had a very hard time dealing with people and integrating myself into a completely different environment. I was the outcast: the only woman and the only non-French student in the lab. 

Being an international student, I had also put a lot of pressure on myself to perform well since I believed I had been given an incredible chance that many would die for. I wanted to come in early and stay out late in the lab, read as much as I could, and basically lived for my work. Nobody asked me to do these things – I just felt this pressure and I thought I needed to keep going to make myself believe that I was doing a good job. What I didn’t realize was that my mental health was gradually deteriorating as a result. 

I realized towards the end of my PhD that I was not the only one suffering. Being in academia brings some common challenges that people don’t talk about. Along with homesickness and the anxiety of finishing my PhD, I was also facing the problem of having no one to talk to about my problems and challenges. When I talked to people, most were very supportive of talking about their personal journeys but when asked to form a community or be a part of something much bigger than their own career, people would shy away and fear the outcomes. 

While I have finished my PhD and am no longer in that mental state, I know that many PhD students continue to suffer in silos. They think their journeys, problems, thoughts are not valid or worth asking for advice over. I wanted to help these people and didn’t want anybody to ever go through what I went through myself. This led me to establish Paksh. 

How exactly does Paksh work? What are its key activities?

Paksh was initially created for students who are living abroad. But knowing that there are many students who are living in their home countries who are also going through the same academic challenges, we decided to make this community open to graduate students and postdocs from across the globe. 

The core idea behind Paksh is creating a safe space, a no-judgment community for academics to freely express their thoughts. People from all walks of life share their experiences, thoughts, and opinions. It is a community based on kindness. They help and support each other. I translated everything I learnt during my PhD about altruism — the ability to help one another without thought of personal gain — into Paksh. I learnt that people form bonds with each other; they can empathize with and support one another no matter where they are from. 

Paksh reinforces that every journey, every experience needs to be acknowledged, talked about, and shared. I think stories matter and storytelling can be an incredible way of empowering and encouraging people to stand up to whatever struggles they are facing. 

At Paksh, I see people coming together irrespective of backgrounds. We need to understand that people can form groups, become part of something that is bigger than themselves, and these groups can be kind and cooperative under stressful circumstances. We tend to find ample reasons to divide people and create borders between them. But at the end of the day we are all from the same species and what connects us together is the love for what we do. Nobody should struggle while doing what they love.

What were the initial challenges you faced while establishing Paksh?

The initial idea of Paksh came to me when I was writing my PhD thesis, which was a very challenging and exhausting period of my life. When I approached people with the idea, many supported me in private but didn’t come forward in public. I approached heads of labs who felt that this was not a strong enough idea for people to be spending their time and resources on. Other major hindrances were the fear of losing my career path, the fact that mental health was not a common priority, and fear of judgement. Later, unexpectedly, I met Roopali, CEO of Lotus STEMM, and that one conversation changed everything. 

Phase 1 of Paksh has now ended. What are your major learnings and how has your journey been?

It has been an incredible journey for me. Starting from the very first session, all the participants were discussing their individual journeys and I think they were experiencing what I wanted them to experience. I was never giving them advice — that was not my job. Our idea was to encourage them to learn from one another. I could see that happening and it was so rewarding for me. We were handling six different time zones and no matter where these people were from, they were able to empathize with one another. 

The major learning from Phase I was that if you want to bet on collective human kindness, you can, and I think Paksh is a testament to that. I have also learnt that if humans can come together under the right circumstances, they can become an altruistic community and this is the most stable strategy in the long run. 

I also realized that a support community can only do so much. There are some underlying issues that really need to be addressed that go much beyond what students face. These problems need to be addressed at the institutional level. Organizations like Dragonfly Mental Health are trying to understand systemic problems and make systematic changes by talking to universities and institutions. I would like to see something like that in the Indian context as well. 

Another major issue is the lack of statistics for issues like academic bullying. I think we need to have many more conversations and that’s the only way we can acknowledge problems and potentially try to find solutions. Scientists spend an incredible amount of time becoming who they are and their loss is a loss to science.

How do you plan to take forward the second phase of Paksh?

In its second phase, Paksh will be much more than a support community. We are planning to divide members into two groups (1) international community and (2) people who are living in their home countries. Because we will be growing bigger in the second phase, I will also have a co-host or a co-facilitator. I would also like to bring in trained people and specialists to give more concrete advice to solve problems that the members are facing.

From your experience, is it also necessary to distinguish Indians living abroad” vs just people living outside their own country”? Are the principles universal or does being Indian pose any special challenges?

There is a theory in evolutionary biology called group selection theory. It essentially talks about the survival of not the fittest but the kindest. It is a theory of compassion that says that a group of organisms that are there for each other and support each other, will always be better off in the long run as compared to individuals that follow selfish interests. And the point I’m trying to make here is that every individual is different and has a role to play. Every story, every journey is important and needs to be acknowledged. I feel you don’t have to distinguish between Indians living abroad and people living outside the country because stories vary at the individual level. The individual stories then become the basis of that community through sharing and learning and result in bonding. I don’t think it matters where you’re coming from as long as you are part of a group and you are able to open up to one another, which requires courage and practice.

Many Indian students dream of going abroad for their doctoral and postdoctoral studies. What kind of mental health challenges are associated with working outside your home country/​home state?

It does not always have to be about leaving your country, it is about leaving your comfort zone and the supportive network of your family and friends. Troubles associated with communicating, not having the people that you are used to around, separation anxiety, and homesickness are some common challenges. Moving to a new place means adjusting to an entirely different environment, culture, and way of doing things. It’s a constant battle between keeping in touch with the ones that you left behind and forming new bonds with people with whom you are now. This really challenges your mental well-being. Having a support system, community and network during this process really helps. That’s the niche I’m trying to fill with Paksh.

What steps can early career researchers take in order to keep mental health issues associated with being away from home’ at bay? As a young Indian woman in STEM working abroad, what advice do you have for Indians planning to go abroad who want to maintain their mental well-being?

Early career researchers often put in much more work and experience much more stress than what is required, just to be validated by the scientific community. I think international students take this even more to heart due to the high pressure to perform. They wear sleeplessness or not eating food as badges of honour and I was one of them too. And that’s where I think we are going wrong. While academia is a great place to be in at the service of science, it can be incredibly brutal. Mental health challenges are not seen in the light they are supposed to be seen in and not just students, but institutions also treat mental health topics as taboo. There’s the idea that if you’re talking about your mental health, it means you’re not strong enough or cut out for being a scientist. 

Studying overseas was a dream for me. However, it came with a lot of challenges and there was a very steep learning curve. I think what helped me the most was to keep the connection with the people I left behind. Humans are social beings and we have forgotten how to form connections and once we find a support network, I think that really eases the journey. 

It is also important to make an effort to integrate yourself into the environment and learn how life works in the new place. There are cultural differences that need to be appreciated and learning the language also helps. Another thing that is very crucial is having realistic expectations. Not everybody gets to change the world. I think, as a scientist, each one of us needs to take responsibility for building a healthy academic environment.

I also think storytelling and sharing real experiences brings people together. The atmosphere of toxicity that we all know exists in academia, partly arises because people don’t talk about their issues. Try to appreciate why you are in science, and make your mental health a priority. Even though we know this, we often don’t take care of ourselves because we don’t think we deserve it. One has to acknowledge that there will always be somebody who will be better than you, no matter where you go, or what you do. At the end of the day, find your identity beyond being just a scientist.

In your opinion, what makes a supportive and reliable mental health community?

Shared experiences make a reliable non-judgmental community. I think COVID has taught us that people can be brought together like never before. Researchers need to understand that you can connect to people beyond your scientific collaborations. It’s really hard to admit to your weaknesses, failures, and fears in front of people and to be able to open up like that requires courage. Ultimately, a reliable community will grow organically, one cannot force these things.

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Senior Program Associate