Posted by Andrea Welsh on Apr 02, 2019

I am a Ph.D. student in physics on an academic path, so conferences are an important part of my career. These are meetings of various sizes (some as small as 40 people, others as large as 11,000) where I get to learn what is the current work of my peers and those I look up to, where I get to present my own work spreading what results I have made with my research, and where I get to connect and network with other researchers forming future collaborations and even just catching up with academic friends. I have been lucky to attend many conferences during my graduate career, often finding funding opportunities from programs both on and off my campus, because I also have an advisor that has been very supportive of these key scientific events. I also find these events as great places to mentor younger students and promote diversity in the physics community. While there have been many onetime conferences that have been beneficial, there are a few that I tend to go to ever year that they occur: the American Physical Society (APS) March Meeting, the APS Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics Dynamical Systems Conference, and the oSTEM National Meeting totaling to about 5-6 each year.

At some point during a weeklong conference, I get exhausted.

I start to attend social events less, causing me to not be known as well by my peers, or I miss early morning talks because I need to sleep in. This is just something I have to deal with as someone who has depression and other mental health issues. Conferences have proven to be a unique challenge for me that I have had to navigate over the course of my graduate career. The main thing has been not comparing my conference experiences to others’ and knowing what is best for me. But allowing myself to acknowledge my limits and forgiving myself for missing opportunities is something that has taken a lot of time.

One time last month during a conference, I realized by lunch that I had forgotten to take my antidepressants because my morning routine was different at the conference than at home. I noticed because my mouth starts to get tingly and I start to develop a headache (the latter is more common for me, but the former is the real indicator). When this happens, I need to quickly excuse myself and return to my room to take my meds and hope that the side effects will subside. I was lucky this time because I was housed in the hotel where the meeting was taking place so it was a quick and easy trip. At others, I noticed only after leaving my hotel for the day and taking public transit for over 30 minutes. So, I need to decide if I should miss a large part of the conference or hope for the best. During this incidence, as an added frustration, my advisor has asked when I will be off medications, not understanding that this is a life time issue, and I am on them indefinitely. The other option is much worse.

Mental health issues at a conference can be a large hassle in general: sensory overload from all the people and the material, a schedule that is atypical from your regular one, early mornings and late nights, typically quick and unhealthy food options, meal and coffee breaks that are often spent working, impostor syndrome, anxiety of meeting new people, stress of making a good impression, and much more. While you can say that most of these issues are happening to everyone, they often affect those with mental illness differently causing longer lasting or harsher consequences. Conferences are often not equipped for people like me in mind.

I have noticed that I have gotten better at controlling my anxiety –of giving talks or meeting new people—but often there is still a nagging feeling when my talk is coming up or I am waiting at a table to grab coffee with someone I have only met for a second that I should run or disappear, cancel the event and make an excuse. It seems exaggerated, but it goes through my mind and I often have to subdue these thoughts as well as the physical effects that come along with this issue. At this week’s conference, my body took over by heating up and making my stomach uncomfortable, my hands shaking, my mind going into such a large panic mode that any session leading up to my talk was not worth my time to attend as I would not be able to focus. And I can’t forget my water bottle when I go up to speak after the one time as an undergrad student where I lost my voice due to anxiety during a small talk on the Auger Observatory.

It is easy for me to become worn out during these meetings, so I often need to plan ahead. Do I have breaks scheduled? Are there spaces for me to hide if I need to? (Thank you oSTEM for your quiet room). Is it more beneficial to stay up with colleagues and future collaborators for dinner and drinks (also ignoring the fact if drinking spaces makes you uncomfortable due to dealing with addiction issues), or leave for my hotel room to recuperate for the next day (and likely take care of all the work I am missing back home)? Is the 8am talk worth it, if my insomnia is keeping me up until 3am or later? Is it too late to take my melatonin as a sleep aid or will I have difficulty walking up if I take it now?

This meeting, I missed my partner’s talk. I was feeling bad. I don’t quite know where it came from. There were a few possibilities that I considered: the slip up I made during my talk, the fact that I was not chosen as winner of the speaker awards, not sleeping well, too much social interaction, feeling like I will never be as productive or able to keep up as those around me, the email I sent for a meet up suggesting a time and the response email completely ignoring that time and setting a different time, feeling like I shouldn’t have eaten as much at the reception. There were a lot of things, but all I know is that I felt bad. My partner understands. But I still feel guilty. I was much better after sitting by myself in bed for a few hours.

This year, a group of five of us met up, no one I knew too well. It was a “Mental Health Meet Up”. I was organizing. I tried to push down all the worries of who wouldn’t or would show up, what they expected of me, how I would recognize them in the river of people getting their coffee. After the first person showed up, I started to calm down a bit. We made polite conversation. More people showed up and we talked a little bit about what each of us worked on. I don’t know how it happened, but by the end, we had talked about reactions to different medications we have been on and how we have concerned advisors at different points when one of us had asked to cry in our advisors office while they sat there and worked or when one of them had pointed out the explosive anger that was very out of character and caused a younger group member to cry. It was nice to be understood and not have to worry about judgement or people not quite understanding. It was nice to not have someone offer up a seemingly simple solution (such as “just pack your meds so you can take them later if you forget!”) to one of our anecdotes when we aren’t necessarily asking for help.

It has been really important for me to have this community. As an undergrad, I knew I had depression and anxiety but never sought help or spoke about it. I used to see faculty members talking about research and think, “I would never get to that point.” When I first brought up the topic in our Women in Physics group, a student proposed that it was understandable that people would not want to support those with depression when they are not as productive. I was too afraid to speak up then and mostly spoke up as an “ally” just like I used to do about LGBTQIA+ topics. But often, no one knows about the struggles. My productivity can be interchangeable with anyone else’s and people don’t necessarily suspect I am struggling.

However, I don’t think that it makes me deserving of being in this space of academia. I am not “one of the good ones,” often called “high-functioning.” We need to make these spaces more accessible and make academia more forgiving for all who want to participate. There are plenty of wonderful contributions that can be made by people who failed classes, took time off, who need the door closed to a room to minimize distractions, or who need direction in making a research plan. We need to not exclude those who have not already been able to manage when we plan ahead for changes in our field.