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(Photo credit: NASA)

The severity of anxiety and depressive symptoms in the planetary science community is greater than in the general U.S. population, according to a study led by a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa scientist and published in Nature Astronomy. The study also found that symptoms are more severe for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers than any other career stage.

“After reading about so much anxiety and depression in academia, and as someone who loves both planetary science and psychology, I felt like I needed to do something because there are so many people suffering,” said David Trang, an assistant researcher in the Hawaiʻi Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at the time of this research and graduate student in the master’s in counseling psychology program at UH Hilo.

Venus. (Photo credit: NASA/JPL)

Prompted by growing recognition of a mental health crisis within the academic and research communities, Trang and co-authors from UH Mānoa Shidler College of Business, Hawaiʻi Pacific University, Jet Propulsion Lab, NASA and U.S. Geological Survey, surveyed more than 300 members of the planetary science community. The survey requested demographic information and included commonly used assessments to measure the severity of anxiety, depression and stress symptoms.

Symptoms greater among marginalized groups

The authors found that anxiety, depressive or stress symptoms appear greater among marginalized groups, such as women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. And further, when examining the correlation between marginalized communities and considering leaving planetary science, LGBTQ+ respondents were more likely to be unsure about staying in the field.

“Some of my colleagues have left the field of science because the academic workplace was hard on their well-being,” said Trang. “This is so unfortunate because science would benefit from each and every person who is passionate about research, as they could contribute so much to the field.”

The authors hope this work highlights issues that some suspected existed in planetary sciences.

“This work marks the beginning of the changes needed to improve mental health in planetary science,” said Trang. “I hope to continue to unravel what is driving these mental health issues and collectively develop solutions that will improve well-being, which will in turn enhance research quality and productivity. Addressing mental health will inevitably improve diversity, equity, and inclusion, as they are linked together.”

In the near future, Trang hopes to run psychoeducation workshops based on psychotherapy concepts to begin improving mental health in planetary science and potentially serve as a model to improve mental health in the rest of academia.

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