Like many professors, Hilal Lashuel has long been swept up in the whirlwind of academic life. In addition to heading up EPFL’s Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology and Neuroproteomics and a startup company, Prof. Lashuel teaches classes and spends a lot of time applying for funding, preparing publications, and mentoring students and members of his team. He has led a full, exciting career, but one that also presented many challenges and demanded sacrifices over the years, including not prioritizing mental health and wellness.
“Excitement, stress, anxiety, fear, impostor syndrome, and time pressure are part of our daily experience as faculty, but our passion for science and research and love for our job make us numb and less conscious of our own health and well-being. In addition to this, the hypercompetitive nature of academia, need of peer recognition, and fear of failure make it difficult to open up about our mental health challenges and failures.”
After suffering two heart attacks in three years, Hilal Lashuel realized he needed to seriously reconsider his work-life balance and reassess his personal and professional priorities. He began reading up on various topics related mental health. He published several articles to share his own experiences and advocate for a more holistic approach to tackling mental health in academia. Today, Prof. Lashuel advocates for universities to better acknowledge this issue and make it a strategic priority. He believes that it is in the interest of these institutions and of society not to let members of the academic community suffer in silence.
Most of the time, when universities speak about mental health, they focus almost exclusively on their students. But we must also support those who support our students – that is, our faculty members and administrative staff.
What prompted you to create a series of free webinars on mental health in academia?
This was the result of a brainstorming session with one of my PhD students, Galina Limorenko, who has her own podcast where she interviews authors on various topics related to science and society. The main goals in creating these webinars are to break the taboo surrounding this issue, help normalize the conversation and increase awareness about this topic.
Our ultimate goal is to create a space for people to talk freely about mental health, share their experiences, coping mechanisms, and work collectively to come up with creative ideas to improve the working environment and culture in our institution and academia. Past topics include: What’s normal? How can we cultivate and sustain our well-being? What can we gain by rethinking our daily routine? And there are more topics to come. The speakers are from many different backgrounds and discuss these topics from a holistic perspective. After all, we’re all in the same boat. We can only address mental health as a community and the first step towards achieving this goal is to restore a feeling of community.
Most of the time, when universities speak about mental health, they focus almost exclusively on their students. But we must also support those who support our students – that is, our faculty members and administrative staff. Universities are highly interconnected, interdependent ecosystems. We need to look after each other – one for all, all for one. Just because you can’t see a problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We need to prioritize our mental health just like we do our physical health.
Can you tell us what you learned from your personal experience with this issue?
I learned that the two most valuable things in life are your health (physical and mental) and the time you spend with your loved ones. At one point I started to wonder whether it was really worth spending my days trying to meet other people’s expectations. In academic circles, saying that you feel stressed, under pressure or mentally exhausted is still seen as a sign of weakness. But when I began to speak openly about my experience, several other professors told me they’d been feeling the same way. That’s why it’s so important to talk openly about these things.
Now I try to maintain a healthier work-life balance by not working on the weekend, by doing fewer things and doing them better, and by being more available to spend time with and listen to others. I also speak more freely about my feelings and the setbacks I face, such as when a grant application is refused. I also run regularly and never miss a good occasion to enjoy time with the family and reconnecting with nature. One of the personal achievements that I am most proud of in 2021 is completing the 10 KM run during the Lausanne 20 KM.
I learned that the two most valuable things in life are your health (physical and mental) and the time you spend with your loved ones. At one point I started to wonder whether it was really worth spending my days trying to meet other people’s expectations.
Why has mental health become such a pressing issue at universities?
Several studies have shown that failure to address mental health challenges like stress, anxiety and depression will negatively affect students learning experiences and performances.
Universities are extremely competitive environments where people are expected to do many different things at once. There is a culture of perfectionism, failure is not seen as a constructive experience, but as a weakness.
The Covid 19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of mental health, and the urgency to act. Facing challenges is healthy to some degree. The only way to find out what you’re capable of is to push yourself, but you have to take care of yourself.
What are the key warning signs?
We all experience highs and lows; that’s normal. Some types of stress even help us perform. But if you look at the mental health spectrum, it’s important be aware where one is in the spectrum and seek support and help if we feel that we are about to enter the red zone. If stress is starting to affect your physical health – such as if you’re having trouble sleeping – or your dealings with other people, or if you find yourself isolating from others and no longer feel capable of attending to your basic needs, then the problem is getting serious.
At that point it’s important to get help. Don’t be afraid to confide in someone you trust, learn more about the resources available and schedule an appointment with a professional. The good news is that most people who seek help do get better, and there are effective techniques and treatments to help people cope and deal with mental health challenges and even become more resilient. But, one must take the first step and seek support. Do it for you.
We also have a responsibility to be there for people struggling with mental health challenges. Unfortunately, we are not provided with the training we need to recognize those suffering or how to support them. Despite this, we can still help by educating ourselves, being ready to listen with non judgemental ears, directing them to the right resources, and supporting them.
We often underestimate the power of words. I remember at a graduation ceremony one year, the mother of one of my students came up to me and thanked me for “saving her son’s life.” In fact, all I’d done was write very positive comments on his assignments that encouraged him to keep up the excellent work. The student really needed to read that after failing the first year and apparently my comments and interactions with him had a big impact. That’s when I began to understand how powerful words can be, not only positive words but also negative ones.
What can universities do to create a healthier environment?
Universities, through their leadership, should first publically acknowledge mental health and the well-being of students, faculty, and staff as a strategic priority. This declaration should be translated into institutional strateg that prioritize mental health and wellness in all aspects of university life.
In developing the strategy, they should survey all community members in order to identify the organizational culture, factors that affect mental health and aspects which are contributing to this problem. I think universities should provide more training to students and staff members on stress management and well-being, and on how to recognize and support those experiencing mental health challenges. They should also and set up the appropriate support programs. The goal should be to create a safe environment where people don’t suffer alone and where everybody feel comfortable talking about mental health without being judged.
I am very pleased that the EPFL’s Associate Vice Presidency for Student Affairs and Outreach is championing this cause with the creation of a Task force to study the issue of mental health at our School and propose concrete and proactive measures to create a culture where everyone can learn, succeed and thrive without compromising their health and wellbeing. In the end, a healthier environment will enable us to better achieve our mission. [The task force’s objectives will be published during the spring semester.]