2020 ACNS Mental Health Survey
In 2020, the ACNS ECR Committee surveyed our membership, and the message was clear: many of us are struggling through difficult times. So, the ACNS Executive have put together this important resource for our Society. We hear from our President, A/Prof Tom Carlson, and Gemma Lamp shares her experiences as a cognitive neuroscientist living with mental health challenges. We present the findings from the 2020 ACNS Mental Health Survey, and provide important details on how to seek support if you need it.
A message from our President, A/Prof Thomas Carlson
Mental health is a major societal issue. The private nature of mental health presents a significant barrier for progress for people experiencing mental health issues. That is, people experiencing mental health issues may be hesitant to reach out for fear of being subject to societal stigma.
The COVID pandemic has intensified mental health issues around the globe. In addition to living with the stressors of the pandemic itself, people have been limited in their capacity to engage in stress relieving activities. Social experiences, such as gathering with family and friends and meeting new people, have been curbed. Opportunities for exercise and recreation have been limited. And, many are experiencing increased job stress, particularly early career researchers (ECR) in the academic sector.
We have regularly discussed these issues in the ACNS Exec, and the ACNS ECR committee has spearheaded two initiatives. First, to bring mental health issues to light, we conducted a mental health survey led by Dr Patrick Cooper and the 2020 ACNS ECR Committee. The survey’s outcome confirmed everyone’s intuitions – people are stressed, and the pandemic has exacerbated this. Second, this month’s ACNS newsletter features an interview with Gemma Lamp, an early career researcher who openly shares her experiences with mental health issues.
We hope that you all take these two initiatives to heart. First, the message from the mental health survey is clear. If you are experiencing stress or having mental health issues, you are not alone. Second, if you are worried about societal stigma, take Gemma’s story as a source of inspiration – get the help you need so you can be stronger for yourself and those around you.
– Tom Carlson
Gemma’s Story: I am a cognitive neuroscientist living with mental health issues
My name is Gemma, I’m the current ACNS Equity and Diversity Co-Chair. I have worked in several other roles within ACNS from Student Representative to Social Media Manager and if you have met me at conferences over the years you would probably agree that I am quite a confident person. What may surprise you is that in addition to working in mental health and studying mental health, I have also experienced mental health issues all my life. I was first diagnosed with major depressive disorder and body dysmorphia when I was 22 and was retro-actively diagnosed with having generalized anxiety disorder and selective mutism at age 12.
I still experience anxiety every day, and I don’t think that will ever go away. If you’ve never experienced anxiety, it’s like a little voice inside of you screaming that you are in danger, but it won’t tell you why! During the last two years, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been times where I have found it extremely hard to focus on work. The changing circumstances in the world feed my anxiety and I find myself getting quite overwhelmed. I know I am not alone in feeling this way, in fact I know that people who have never experienced mental health issues are now faced with all sorts dysfunction for the first time. Therefore, I wanted to share my story.
I’ve seen different psychologists over the years and tried different therapies; however, while I have always been quite high functioning, I have also experienced many episodes of poor mental health which have impacted my ability to study and/or work. My depressive episodes have usually been triggered by life events and can last anywhere from a week to several months. During these episodes sleep becomes disturbed, and eating can become near impossible. In fact, while finishing my Honours year I lost so much weight that I was nearly hospitalized from malnutrition.
My most recent depressive episode occurred four years ago, during which I lost the ability to enjoy anything. It was during this time that I decided to try medication for the first time and for me, it was life changing. It took a little bit of work figuring out the correct dose, and there were periods where I needed to take leave from study as I was unable to focus. But as soon as the dose was right, I suddenly found I was able to function better than ever. Little things in my life that used to be really difficult for me became more manageable. I also started working with a new psychologist who helped me understand why some things were difficult for me, and help me learn behavioural strategies to cope when things were hard.
I think there can be a lot of stigma around mental illness, though I hope this is changing. I have always been very open about mental health. I have been lucky to have always been supervised by people who are extremely understanding and accommodating of this. It can be scary to tell a supervisor that you are experiencing mental health issues, but I have always felt that it is best to be upfront and if I am faced with an unsupportive environment, then perhaps that environment is not for me.
So my message to everyone reading- if you have been facing mental health issues, especially during the last 2 years, you are not alone and these mental health issues need not be a barrier to still achieving your goals. I have been able to finish my Bachelors, Honours, Masters and am close to finishing my PhD. I have worked in research, in mental health roles and have published my work. But I have also needed periods of rest and unproductivity. I have needed support from friends, family and medical professionals. I have experienced feeling like I was a complete and utter failure, too many times to count. But I always remember that life is like a sine curve, it will always go up and down so while you might be at the bottom sometimes, before you know it you’ll be on the way up again.
Results of the Mental Health Survey
Early career research is an exciting period of time, building expertise and establishing an independent line of discovery. It is also turbulent – with pressing deadlines, battling for funding and uncertainty about job security. Previous surveys from Nature have noted that early career researchers, including PhD students, find research rewarding but often feel overextended which impacts poorly on their mental health and wellbeing.
Last year, the ACNS ECR committee sought to capture a snapshot of the current mental health and wellness of our early career membership. The survey asked participants to rate their own mental health status, including levels of stress, anxiety, depression and burnout. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of COVID-19 on their wellbeing was also assessed.
We surveyed 105 ECRs (70.5% students, 29.5% postdoctoral researchers) and found comparable results to previous polls:
- 91% had felt burnt out in the previous 12 months
- 20% reported poor or very poor mental health
- 79% of participants attributed the majority of their mental health due to work
These findings offer an important reminder that despite our love of research, the future generation of scientists need support to continue their work.
Click below to access the results of the 2020 ACNS Mental Health Survey.
– Patrick Cooper
2020 ACNS ECR Committee Chair
How to access support
- Make an appointment with your GP. When booking, tell them it is for mental health so they know to book a longer appointment and in some situations they may bulk bill
- Your GP will ask you about your mental health concerns and it is best to be as honest as possible
- The GP may also administer a questionnaire like the DASS-21 to ascertain your symptomology and severity.
- During the discussion they may talk to you about medication in addition to psychology sessions, so be prepared for that.
- There are 3 main Medicare plans they make in order for you to see a psychologist:
- Mental Health Care/Treatment Plan: this is the most common plan. This entitles you to 20 sessions per year. The referrals get broken up into 6 initial sessions, 4 sessions after a review with the GP, then an additional 10 sessions under the COVID provider. This means you need to see your GP again to get each of the plans, and for your GP to keep updated with your progress
- Eating Disorders Plan: If you are experiencing problems regarding eating, you may get a more complex plan. These entitle you to 40 sessions, and you will work closely with a dietician and your GP in addition to an eating disorder specialized psychologist so you can work together in your recovery.
- Team Care Arrangement: these are more complex and used in the case of chronic and more severe conditions. Similar to an eating disorder plan, these plans involve several allied health professionals working together to ensure you receive the best possible care and the sessions you receive with a psychologist will be dependent on the team’s decisions. Examples of these are in the case of a cancer diagnosis, stroke, chronic heart condition, etc.
- If you can’t get a mental health care plan, or you have used all your sessions and need more, you might be able to claim with private health insurance if you have a plan that covers sessions in your extras. Check in with your health insurance provider for more information.
- If you cannot get a mental health care plan, and you don’t have health insurance, you can look into alternative providers. For example, university psychology clinics can often offer sessions with a psychologist under supervision at very low cost without a mental health care plan.
- You can also see a social worker under a mental health care plan, depending on what you are needing help with. This can be particularly helpful if your needs are more complex trauma based, as they are more specialized to work with this.
- Your mental health care plan does not expire, so if you have an old one with unused sessions you may still be able to use this.
- Your mental health care plan can have the name of a different psychologist on it. This is particularly helpful in times like now where services can be quite booked up.
- Be persistent. If you call a psychology service to book in and they are unable to take you, ask for recommendations of other clinics that may have openings. Alternatively, consult the APA website or google other psychology providers local to you.
- During lockdowns, it is likely that psychologists can only provide telehealth sessions. This means rather than going into the clinic for face to face, they will either call you on the phone or do a video conference. This can often be off putting to some people, but please try to accommodate this to ensure you receive the care you need. You might be pleasantly surprised with how well it can work.
If you are waiting for a session with a psychologist and experience the need to talk to someone urgently- remember that there are crisis helplines you can call to talk to someone.
- Lifeline – 13 11 14 (24hrs/day, 7 days/week)
- Suicide call back service – 1300 659 467 (24hrs/day, 7 days/week)
- Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636 (24hrs/day, 7 days/week)
- Suicide Helpline Victoria – 1300 651 251 (24hrs/day, 7 days/week)
- Kids Help Line – 1800 551 800 (24hrs/day, 7 days/week)
- DirectLine (alcohol and drug counselling) – 1800 888 236 (24hrs/day, 7 days/week)
- SANE – 1800 187 263 (10am to 10pm, weekdays)
- Head to help – 1800 595 212
- Rainbow Door (For LGBTQ+ specialist support, 7 days/week 10am-6pm) – 1800 729 367 or for texting 0480 017 246
- Switchboard Victoria (For LGBTQ+ specialist support, business days from 3pm-midnight) 1800 184 527
- Butterfly Foundation (For eating disorders) – 1800 33 4673
- For the Australian Clinical Association www.acpa.org.au
- Perinatal Mental Health Concerns www.panda.org.au
- Psychology tip sheets and resources www.cci.health.wa.gov.au
- Information on Acceptance and Commitment therapy www.actimindfully.com.au
- Access to crisis support and suicide prevention www.lifeline.org.au
- Eating disorders information and support www.eatingdisorders.org.au
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy www.cbtaustralia.com.au
- Schema Therapy http://www.schematherapy.com/
- THIS WAY UP is an Australian provider of evidence-based, internet-delivered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy programs. It is a not-for-profit and joint initiative of St Vincent’s Hospital and the University of New South Wales. You can access internet-based mental health therapy for $59, or free with a referral. https://thiswayup.org.au/
Click below to download these contact details in document form