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Here’s what academic departments, faculty, and graduate students can do to support mental health

Infographic reading Infographic via the Berkeley Science Review

Almost six months ago, I published a post on my experience with depression in academia.  I was really blown away by the thoughtful and supportive responses that I received from so many people both within and outside of the academy.  Since then, I’ve had a number of really good conversations about what departments, faculty, and grad students can do to better support students’ mental health.  Here are some of the suggestions that really stood out to me.

What everyone can do

The first step for staff, faculty, and students is to familiarize themselves with the facts about mental health on campus.  Nearly 40% of grad students across multiple countries say they’ve recently experienced moderate to severe depression.  However, with appropriate support, people facing mental health challenges can still do excellent research and finish their doctoral programs in a timely manner.  It’s important to challenge the narrative that grad students with mental health problems aren’t suited for academia, which is an ableist view that shuts a lot of smart people out from the system.

Second, check out the mental health resources that are available at your campus.  These may include counseling provided through your university health center; mental health advocacy groups; or online resources, like Berkeley’s free, downloadable guide on Promoting Student Mental Health.

Third, I can’t overemphasize how important it is to remove some of the stigma from mental health issues by discussing them openly.  Before and during the time I experienced depression, I knew very little about mental health on campus.  I thought I was the only person in my department who was struggling, and I was afraid to admit that things seemed to be going deeply wrong.  But once I began opening up to people about it, I found that a significant proportion of my PhD classmates had experienced similar issues, and had often significantly benefited from therapy or medication.  I might have pursued treatment much earlier if I’d had any idea how typical my experience was, and how many options were available to help me feel better.  Starting the conversation early, even if you and all the people you know seem to feel all right at the moment, is a really important step.

What departments can do

Departmental staff are already the unsung heroes of academia: the people who help you navigate your class schedule, submit your grant applications, and answer all your questions about graduate requirements.  They also have an important role to play in connecting students and faculty to mental health resources.

It’s really important to begin discussing mental health issues openly from the beginning of grad students’ careers.  Doing a module on common mental health challenges, and the resources available on campus, during orientation for new students would be a great way to start this conversation.  This information could also be shared with current students every year, since everyone could use the occasional reminder that mental health issues are normal and there are lots of ways to seek support.

If you find that you’re struggling with your mental health as a grad student, but you’re concerned about discussing this with your faculty advisor, you can reach out in confidentiality to the graduate student advisor on staff in your department.  They can help you connect to mental health resources on campus, change a challenging workload, or think through funding options if you need some time away from campus.

What faculty can do

One of the comments I got on my depression post aptly pointed out that graduate students aren’t the only people dealing with mental health problems.  The demanding teaching, research, and administrative responsibilities of academia — not to mention structural problems like racism and sexism — mean that faculty are also vulnerable to depression and anxiety.  I’ve since updated the earlier post to acknowledge this important point.  If you’re a faculty member concerned about your own mental health, definitely check out the suggestions for graduate students below.

The heavy workload of  a professor, not to mention the additional toll of family responsibilities and one’s own potential mental health challenges, may leave faculty feeling that they don’t have the time to follow up on students’ mental health.  However, there are some fairly quick things that faculty can do to support their students.

First, it’s useful for faculty to introduce mental health as an acceptable topic of discussion.  During a meeting with a new student, you could say something like this: “I know that grad school puts people under a lot of pressure, and many students end up dealing with challenges like depression or anxiety.  That’s pretty common, and doesn’t mean that you’re failing as a student.  If you’re ever feeling like that, you can always talk to me about it.  I can help you connect to other mental health resources around campus.”  Most students probably won’t take faculty up on this, but it’s important to let them know that if they do end up facing mental health challenges, they don’t need to fear being punished for discussing it.

Second, take the time to briefly check in with students about their work-life balance during the course of the academic year.  If you notice that a student seems to be struggling to complete their work or meet their deadlines, send them a quick email emphasizing that they’re not in trouble, and asking them if they’re doing all right or would like to talk.  Again, a faculty member’s role here isn’t to serve as a therapist.  But reaching out to them in this way and offering to connect them to other mental health resources on campus could be an easy way to encourage someone to seek the help they need.

Third, advocate for policies that reduce some of the structural stresses faced by graduate students.  Many of these are financial: you can ask your department to index stipends for inflation or the cost of housing, or ask them to pay out conference travel grants up front,  rather than requiring students to pay out of pocket and get reimbursed.  Other issues are related to discrimination: you can support the creation of working groups for women or people of color in the department, or encourage the department to name an equality chair who can support students and faculty who have faced discrimination.  Students who are less stressed about money or discrimination have more bandwidth to do excellent academic work.

What graduate students can do

Let’s say you’re a first year grad student.  You’re feeling excited about your proposed research idea, but also a bit overwhelmed by the amount of work you’ve got ahead of you.  What are some steps you can take to support your own mental health and that of your classmates during the years of study ahead?

Start by taking the time to do periodic check-ins with yourself about your mental health.  Almost everyone feels stressed by work and deadlines and career prospects at various points during grad school, and that’s not inherently problematic.  However, it is important to be aware of whether you’re feeling manageable stress, or whether you’re experiencing a more persistent mental health problem.

I’ve found that the most reliable way for me to figure out if I’m having a bad period of mental health is to look at patterns in my behavior.  If you look at how you feel, you might just brush it off: “I’m stressed and miserable, but everyone in my cohort sounds stressed and miserable about exams right now, so I shouldn’t complain about it.”  If you look at other circumstances in your life, things might seem all right: “I’m in a great program and have a nice place to live, and that means that I don’t have any reason to feel sad.”  But it’s harder to deny what’s happening if you’re looking at repeated patterns of behavior: “That’s the second time this week that I’ve skipped class because I couldn’t get out of bed.  I don’t remember myself acting like this before.”

You can use the same strategies to engage with your classmates about their mental health.  If you notice that someone is acting out of the ordinary — say, missing class or ignoring deadlines — it’s worth sending them a quick message about it.  You can note that you’ve seen a pattern of behavior that concerned you a bit, and ask if there’s anything they’re feeling stressed about, or would like to talk about.  Of course, your classmate may say that everything is fine.  But in my experience, it’s easy to brush off an email that says, “Hey, where were you in class today?”  It’s not so easy to ignore an email saying, “Hey, I’ve noticed that you’ve been away from class a lot this month and didn’t turn in that last paper.  Is everything all right?”   No student is responsible for someone else’s mental health, of course.  But it’s worth taking the time to check in on each other — you never know when it may give someone the opening that they need to start thinking seriously about their mental health.

If you do notice these types of patterns in your behavior or that of a classmate, that’s a good sign that you or the classmate might need additional support.  This could take a variety of forms.  Walking up to a counselor at the university health center and declaring that you feel depressed might feel liberating, or it might feel like it’s a bridge too far at first.  You don’t have to do this right away (or ever) if you don’t feel comfortable doing so.  A good place to start is simply by taking stock.  Talk with a friend, or write a journal entry, or do something else that lets you think about how you’ve been behaving recently.  What patterns do you notice?  Do they seem to be correlated with something else in your life, like financial stresses, or struggling in a class?

Sometimes you can figure out the proximate source of anxiety or depression on your own, and try to make the necessary changes in your life, like dropping a class.  For other issues, like financial challenges or systemic discrimination, you might not be able to solve the underlying problems by yourself.  Or you may feel that you’re miserable even though everything else seems fine.  Those are good moments to seek outside help.  Talk to a counselor at your health center, and tell them about the behavior changes that you’ve noticed.  It’s totally normal to admit to feeling confused and scared, and to feel like you don’t know what to do next.  Counselors are around to help you work through these feelings and figure out possible solutions.

If you’re concerned about the cost of therapy, even with insurance, there are several options you could pursue.  Many therapists will offer a sliding scale of fees for clients in financial distress.  If your university has a psychology department, you may be able to get free counseling provided by graduate students as part of their clinical experience.  This article has more suggestions for accessing therapy when you can’t afford to pay much.  Also, if you’re struggling to figure out what types of therapy your US insurance covers, which may feel opaque at the best of times and nearly impossible if you’re depressed, ask a friend or family member if they can support you in this.  You don’t have to do everything on your own.

If you are feeling depressed or anxious to the point where you have a difficult time carrying out daily responsibilities or meeting your professional obligations, you should seriously consider discussing this with your faculty advisor.  Advisors vary, of course, and not all of them will be supportive, so you will have to make this decision on your own.  But if the alternative is falling behind on your work with no explanation, that may also have lasting reputational costs.  In general, it’s better to be transparent about the fact that you’re facing health issues.  This is the #1 thing that I wish I had done differently when I was depressed.  Once I did speak with my advisor about my health after almost three years of serious depression, he responded with understanding and support, and worked with me to shift my dissertation project to something that I could complete given the constraints I was facing.

Depending on how seriously your mental health challenges are affecting your life, you may find it useful to take a medical leave of absence, so that you can pursue treatment and not have to worry about your work for a while. Talk to the graduate student advisor in your department about how this might work.  It may feel really hard to take this step, but mental health problems are real health problems, and there’s absolutely no shame about needing time away from work to deal with them.

The good news is that depression and anxiety aren’t permanent.  Therapy and antidepressants have both been shown to be effective at helping people cope with these issues.  I’ve found regular journaling to be incredibly useful.  Recovery does take time — anywhere from weeks to years, depending on your situation — but it’s absolutely possible to become more healthy and get yourself professionally back on track.

What I’m reading for October 2018

A link roundup cross-posted as usual from my latest edition of Africa Update.  We’ve got Nigeria’s undercover atheists, the electricity pirates of the DRC, Kenya’s top Somali restaurants, the best Rwandan hairstyles, and more.

Map of Africa showing what a mini bus is called in each countryThe wheels on the trotro go round and round… (via Africa Visual Data)

West Africa: In Benin, the government has just raised the fee required to register as a presidential candidate from US $26,000 to US$450,000.  A new wave of travel start-ups is encouraging Nigerians to explore their own country rather than traveling abroad.  Nigeria’s undercover atheists are ostracized for their lack of faith.  Read this special issue of Kujenga Amani about peacebuilding in the Niger Delta.  Ghanaian market vendors fought back after they were targeted for eviction, and ended up getting a new market building so they could keep selling.  Sierra Leone recently implemented a popular new policy of free primary education, but they’re falling short of school seats and teachers.  This is a remarkable thread about how the BBC identified soldiers responsible for killing civilians in a video from Cameroon.  D’Ebola à Zika, un labo tout-terrain en Afrique de l’Ouest.

A selection of street signs from Accra, including Gamel Abdul Nasser Ave, Olusegun Obasanjo High St, Haile Selassie St, Kampala Ave, Sekou Toure Lane, Kigali Ave, and Leopold Senghor CloseAs Charles Onyango-Obbo notes about Accra, “All African capitals, and its independence & post-independence leaders who were minimally anti-imperialist have streets named in their honour. They’ve probably done so in Accra alone more than all the rest of Africa combined!”

Central Africa: Russia has begun supplying arms to and signing opaque cooperation agreements with the Central African Republic.  IPIS has released a new interactive map of armed groups in the CAR.  In the DRC, fees of US$500 for power meters and yearslong waits to have them installed have led many people to pirate electricity from their neighbors.  Burundi has begun suspending NGOs for failing to comply with opaque legal regulations.  La Belgique va rendre au Rwanda les archives de la période coloniale.  Uganda’s former police chief was recently arrested, and there are rumors it was because he might have been fomenting a Rwandan-backed uprising against Museveni.

Three Rwandan men with their hair shaped into swooping, curved figuresSome fantastic Rwandan hairstyles from the early 20th century, via James Hall

East Africa:  This article on Kenya’s Somali cuisine made me hungry!  I’ll have to add those restaurants to my list for my next staycation in Nairobi.  Read this piece on the history of Islam on the Kenyan coast.  Kenya may reconsider its criminalization of homosexuality in light of India’s recent decriminalization of the same.  The IGC has a new report contrasting patterns of statebuilding in Somalia and Somaliland.  This was an insightful description of how Tanzania’s Magufuli consolidated power within the CCM.  Magufuli has also called for a ban on contraception, saying that Tanzania’s population is too small.  A new report estimates that more than 380,000 people have died in South Sudan’s civil war.

Southern Africa: Members of the ANC in South Africa are brutally assassinating each other in an intra-party struggle for control.  South Africa recently legalized personal use of marijuana, but more needs to be done to ensure that the poor rural farmers who grow it also benefit.  The new On Africa podcast is kicking off with an analysis of Zimbabwe’s recent election.  Meet the woman challenging sexist laws about the inheritance of chieftaincy in Lesotho.

hospital

Here’s where every hospital in Africa is located, via Makhtar Diop

Health: Congratulations to Dr Denis Mukwege, who has won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work providing healthcare to women affected by sexual violence in eastern DRC.  The Ugandan government has banned all ministers from seeking healthcare abroad.  In Kenya, an estimated seven women die each day from unsafe abortions.  This was a heartbreaking portrait of South Sudan’s best maternity hospital.  Harsh laws against adultery prevent many women in Mauritania from reporting sexual assault.

extreme povertyChart of the day via Justin Sandefur

Academia: Scholars based in Africa are encouraged to submit their papers to the Working Group on African Political Economy by October 21, and to this conference on Gendered Institutions and Women’s Political Participation in Africa by October 15.   Join this free online discussion of state-building in Tanzania with the African Politics Conference Group on October 15.  Don’t miss this essential reading list on African feminism or this new edition of Ufahamu Journal on the African university.  Let’s hold more conferences on Africa in Africa, so that African researchers don’t run into visa problems.

A chart showing that most of Africa's external debt is held by official lenders, and relatively little by ChinaAdditional chart of the day, showing that concerns about Chinese debt in Africa are rather overblown, via Quartz

Fellowships: The Institute for Qualitative and Multi-Method Research at Syracuse has five fully-funded scholarships for African scholars to attend.  The Iso Lomso Fellowship for Early Career African Scholars is open until October 20.  Several scholarships are available for African PhD students and researchers through the Next Generation Social Science Fellowship.

Here’s how to plan an urban vacation in Nairobi

Two white women standing in front of a table with six cups of coffee on itCoffee tasting at Fairview Coffee Estate

Recently my mom came to visit me in Nairobi for 10 days.  I suggested that we spend some of that time at the Mara or on the coast, but she wanted to focus on exploring the city.  We ended up having a great time, and I discovered a lot of fun new activities which I hadn’t previously known about.

Aside from the inevitable expense of the flight to Kenya (because we didn’t find a good deal on Secret Flying), this was also a surprisingly affordable way to spend a holiday.  With the exception of guided tours, most of the activities we tried had fees ranging from Ksh 50 / US$0.50 to Ksh 1000 / US$10 for one person.  Taxis booked through Taxify are generally not more than Ksh 1000 / US$10 even for a long trip from the outer suburbs into town.  Eating out can be expensive, but buying groceries and cooking for yourself is fairly cheap.

Here are my top recommendations for visitors to the city!

Where to stay

Nairobi is still very much shaped by its colonial-era urban planning.   The city was founded as a railway depot in the late 1800s, and zoned into commercial and residential areas segregated by race.  The northern and western suburbs were allocated to Europeans, and built up with single-family homes on wide, leafy streets, while the southern and eastern suburbs tend to have higher density housing or informal settlements.  These patterns have persisted to the present day, with well-to-do Kenyans and white immigrants living in the former European colonial zones.  Many visitors stay in these areas as well.  It’s really not great to advocate continuing this pattern, but it’s also the case that many activities which might interest visitors are around these areas.

Balcony with a small wooden table and two chairs on it, and a view looking out across a leafy valley towards another high rise apartment building

The view from Kilimani

Pick a neighborhood based on your plans in Nairobi.  If you’re primarily interested in seeing wildlife, there are a number of good options for this around Karen, far to the west of downtown.  If you’d like easy access to restaurants and shopping both in the neighborhood and in the central business district (CBD), consider Kilimani, which is immediately west of downtown.  If you’d prefer peace and quiet, look for something around Gigiri, north of downtown.  If you’re only passing through for a night on your way out to one of the national parks, it’s best to stay close to the airport in Embakasi, as traffic coming from the airport to any of these other areas can be quite heavy.

The best way to stay is definitely with AirBnB.  There are a number of great housing options available, and it’s almost always cheaper and more comfortable than a hotel.

What to do

Start your trip with a panoramic view!  The Nairobi National Museum just north of downtown has an excellent exhibit on Kenyan history — or you could go for a literal panorama from the helipad at the Kenya International Convention Centre in the CBD.

Learn more about Kenyan arts and culture with a trip to one of the city’s many art galleries.  The Nairobi Gallery is in the CBD, and the GoDown Arts Centre  is just south of that.  Farther out of town, past Gigiri, are a range of excellent galleries including One-Off Contemporary Art, Red Hill Art Gallery, and Banana Hill Art Gallery.

The Kenya National Theatre in the evening
Attending a play at the National Theatre

Catch a concert, play, or spoken word performance at venues including the National TheatreAlliance Française, or Goethe Institut, all of which are downtown.  If you’re interested in traditional dance, don’t miss the daily shows at Bomas of Kenya near Karen, which feature dances from across the country’s 47 regions.  The Nairobi Now newsletter is also a great resource for new performances.

Stock up on souvenirs at one of the city’s many craft shops.  The Maasai Market is held at various locations around town on different days.  If you’re near Karen, stop by Langata Link Shops or Utamaduni Artisans, both of which have well made crafts.  If you’re a more serious collector of African art, there are several interesting shops selling antiques and contemporary art at Village Market in Gigiri.

There are lots of opportunities to get outside for hikes or picnics within the city limits, thanks to the work of environmental campaigners like Wangari MaathaiKarura Forest in Gigiri has miles of hiking trails.  The Nairobi Arboretum near Kilimani is a lovely spot for a walk or a picnic.  In Karen, Oloolua Nature Trail is a lovely place to spend an afternoon.

IMG_5827
The Nairobi Arboretum

If you’re passionate about wildlife, Nairobi is definitely the place for you.  You can visit orphaned baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, feed a giraffe at the the Giraffe Centre, and or go on a half-day or full-day safari at Nairobi National Park, all of which are close to Karen.  For the safari, you will need to drive through the park.  It’s best to go with a tour guide for this, as they’ll be familiar with the places where animals usually gather.  Check out TripAdvisor’s suggestions to find a guide.

Don’t miss the chance to explore the beautiful countryside around Nairobi either.  A drive out to Lake Naivasha will take you past the Rift Valley, where you can stop to appreciate the stunning view.  You can also connect with your food by doing guided tours of Kiambethu Tea Farm, Brown’s Cheese Farm, or Fairview Coffee Estate, all of which are shortly outside Nairobi.

Where to eat  

Kenya’s unofficial national cuisine is nyama choma, or grilled meat.  Every neighborhood has a good choma place, and it’s best to ask your host or just do a bit of Googling to find them.  Two of my favorites are Peponi Springs in Spring Valley, somewhat north of the CBD, and the choma stalls at Kenyatta Market south of the CBD.  A more upscale version of the same experience is provided by Nyama Mama in Westlands, west of the CBD.

A bottle of White Cap beer and a half-full glass of beer next to it on a red table, on a patio with lots of trees around itRelaxing on the patio at Peponi Springs

Ethiopian and Eritrean food are also well represented around Nairobi.  Habesha in Kilimani has a lovely garden, and Asmara is a quiet spot in Spring Valley north of the CBD.  Kesh Kesh in Kilimani is more of a café, but also serves excellent Eritrean food.

There has been a large Indian population in Kenya ever since the colonial era, partly as a result of economic migration, and partly as a consequence of the colonial policy of bringing people from India as indentured laborers.  Today, many prominent business owners in Kenya are of Indian descent — and there are also a lot of excellent Indian restaurants.  Two of my favorites close to the CBD are Haandi and Chowpaty.  In Karen, Open House is quite good.

Other international foods are also quite well represented.  I’m fond of Mercado (excellent Mexican close to the CBD), Caffe Concerto (a tiny, outstanding Italian place in a converted house in Kilimani), and Misono (sushi in Kilimani).

If you’d rather cook for yourself, every major mall has a good supermarket.  In Kilimani, you can choose between two Kenyan supermarkets: Nakumatt at Prestige Plaza (which is well-stocked, unlike its sad situation last year) and Chandarana at AdLife Plaza (identical selection to the Chandarana across the street at Yaya Centre, and much less crowded).  In Gigiri, there’s a Zucchini greengrocer at Village Market.  In Karen, there’s a massive Carrefour at the Hub.

It’s also easy to get takeaway through Jumia Food, which does delivery from a wide range of restaurants throughout the city.

Logistics

Most nationalities need visas to enter Kenya.  Apply for an e-visa before you leave, and take the printed approval form to passport control on arrival.

The entrance to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at nightGoing through the first security check at JKIA

The vast majority of Kenyans are on one mobile network: Safaricom.  Get a SIM when you arrive, and don’t forget to sign up for mobile money with MPesa.  Every merchant accepts it, and it’s much easier than carrying around cash.  If you have an American, Canadian or British bank account, you can use Wave to easily transfer money to your MPesa account.

Within the city, use Taxify to get a taxi from door to door, SafeBoda if you’d rather hop on a motorcycle and beat traffic, and Ma3Route (pronounced “matatu route”) if you’re not in a rush and would rather take the bus (a.k.a. a matatu).

Malaria incidence is quite low within Nairobi, and you don’t need to take anti-malarials.  You will be asked for proof of a yellow fever vaccine at immigration, however.

If you need medical care while you’re here, there are pharmacists / chemists at every major mall.  The Nairobi Hospital near Kilimani and Aga Khan Hospital in Parklands near the CBD both provide good care.  You can call St John Ambulance for transport at +254 203 340 262.

How do Indonesian policymakers seek out research?

Ajoy Datta had a good post at Research to Action recently about how Indonesian policymakers interact with research evidence.  Here are some of his key points.  First, policymakers are interested in evidence, but they tend to look for data rather than papers initially:

Our results show that when mid-level Indonesian policymakers in both large ‘spending ministries’ and smaller ‘influencing ministries’ are tasked with, say, developing or revising a regulation or law, their first priority is to acquire not research, but statistical data. Seen as objective, policymakers feel data will, for instance, identify current trends, recognise issues that need to be addressed, assign targets, and/or demonstrate impact.

However, the reality is that some policymakers find it difficult to access high-quality data, while others struggle to make sense of the huge volume of data that exists. Data on its own fails to show  the causes of trends and does not point to potential solutions. This is where research can help.

Second, if policymakers want more context for the data they find, they’re fond of inviting experts in for discussions:

Most importantly, however, when policymakers did seek out research, rather than commission or read comprehensive research papers, they are more likely to invite experts they already knew to provide advice through social processes (which some policymakers consider as research). These processes usually feature formal and informal meetings or phone conversations, focus group discussions (FGDs), or seminars.

Part of this is because of constraints on the ability to either rapidly access existing research, or commission new papers on specific topics:

Procedures to procure research from internal research and development units, where they exist, is lengthy and cumbersome. This usually discourages them from making a request at all. In any case, these internal units often lack the capacity to produce high-quality research. Meanwhile, other procedures constrained policymakers from hiring top-end researchers from outside government to undertake research.

The main takeaway is that the social process of building trust between researchers and policymakers matters a great deal.  This certainly poses a challenge for academics, as creating these relationships takes time, and unfortunately doesn’t count towards one’s tenure packet.

Statistics on pre-trial detention in Kenya

Infographic with various figures about pre-trial detention in Kenya
Image via Nation NewsPlex

The Daily Nation recently ran an interesting article about pre-trial detention in Kenya.  Some key facts:

  • Fully 52% of people in Kenyan prisons are in pre-trial detention.  Only 48% have actually been sentenced.  (Note that the percentages are incorrect in the infographic above.)
  • The average length of stay in pre-trial detention is one year.  Some people have waited up to eight years without a hearing.
  • 90% of people in pre-trial detention are there because they were granted bail but couldn’t afford it.  Bail amounts range from Ksh 500 / US$5 to Ksh 10 million / US$100,000.
  • Many people in pre-trial detention have had their cases mentioned numerous times in court, but no decisions were taken because the complainants or witnesses didn’t show up, and the defendant was then returned to jail to await a new court date.  It’s not clear to me why default judgements would not be entered in cases where complainants don’t show up to court.