“The Next Patient: Science” – ScienceGuide

“The Next Patient: Science” – ScienceGuide

Opinion | By Joeri Tiedink and Marie-José van Tol

January 15, 2024 | Conditions within science threaten the mental health of young scientists. Meanwhile, science knows how mental health can be boosted, write Joeri Tiedink and Marie-José van Tol. They introduced the academic thermometer to monitor the “mental temperature” of Dutch science.

Photo: Othman Yusuf

Recently, alarm bells were ringing in Nature about the poor mental health experienced by young scientists around the world. Up to forty percent of them suffer from complaints of depression or anxiety. We were surprised by this shocking number, but not completely surprised. Depression and anxiety are an everyday occurrence for us, as practitioners and researchers in the field of depression and anxiety. We also see this around us in science. In the house of science, mental health screams like a heavy floor. This entails risks.

Poor mental health causes all kinds of complaints that hinder scientists. Think decreased concentration, inflexibility, forgetfulness, lack of sleep, and lack of motivation and creativity. This is bad for everyone, but absolutely disastrous for scientists. The brain of a deranged scientist is like a dull saw to a carpenter: the tools you need don't work. This jeopardizes the quality of scientific research.

How do we do?

Through various studies, we know not only the reasons for the development of psychological complaints, but also how to combat them. There are a number of these reasons in science, but which one prevails? What is the mental health of all scientists in the Netherlands, young and not so young? We hear more and more around us: bad.

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Many scientists experience high workload and stress, which are clearly detrimental to mental health. The high workload may be due, among other things, to the fact that the scientist has to keep a lot of balls in the air: teaching, researching, managing, writing applications and talking about work outside the university. Plus, ethics probably don't help either: the work is never finished, there's always a publication to write or a grant to apply for, and competition is fierce.

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Growing to become a professor is for the “happy few” and permanent contracts are rare, especially for young scholars. This contributes to another mental health risk: uncertainty. This is often a big deal in science. It is difficult to predict whether the work you put your heart and soul into will lead to the proper recognition and recognition. Not much praise is given in the academic world.

The power of science

Fortunately, science also has everything it needs to promote mental health. It's a goldmine for the curious. University is a building site for thought, fueled by endless motivation, freedom and the opportunity to learn more and understand the world around us. You can grow personally there, but you can also contribute to the development of students and young colleagues and solve major social problems. Above all, you work with unique, smart people who have innovative ideas and develop your ideas or turn them on their heads.

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All of these “bonuses” are important for good mental health. If we experience this enough, it can arm us against the negative effects of stress resulting from uncontrolled work pressure.


But how do we maintain balance? How do we ensure that scientists do not suffer from depression, anxiety and lack of motivation and thus leave or leave science permanently? We find it very disturbing that this is happening. That's why we welcome a new patient to our consulting room: the scientist. Just as with our patients, the following applies: Without a comprehensive diagnosis, there is no good treatment plan.

First, we measure the “mental temperature” of Dutch science using Academic thermometer. We investigate mental complaints, working conditions, research culture and system factors that can impact mental health at all levels of science. Only then can we formulate a good prevention and treatment plan to keep more scientists healthy and enjoying science. This way we can give society what it has always needed most: reliable knowledge, well-trained people, and solutions to the problems of today and tomorrow.

Until then: wait, we are here for you and we will meet you at the next consultation.

Joëri Tiedink is a psychiatrist and scientist working at UMC Amsterdam and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Marie-José van Tol researches depression and is a professor of cognitive neuropsychiatry at the University Medical Center Groningen. They are both members of KNAW's Youth Academy.

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