Cell biologist Keisha Hardeman encourages other researchers struggling with their mental health to talk to therapists, mentors or peers.Credit: UTSW
When thinking about disabled scientists, physical circumstances tend to jump to mind — someone who uses a wheelchair, wears a prosthesis or is blind. Keisha Hardeman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, speaks about her hidden disabilities: depression and anxiety. She shares how these mental-health challenges have shaped her journey as a scientist, as well as the importance of seeking counselling and how she has learnt to manage.
When did you notice your own mental-health struggles, and how did you seek help?
I first noticed some changes in high school. I was the valedictorian (top graduate of my class) but stopped doing academic decathlon (a high-school competition held annually in the United States) and dropped out of other stuff. When I went to Texas A&M University in College Station, it got worse and worse. Eventually, in 2005, I walked into a campus counselling centre for the first time. I needed to talk to someone.
By the time I went for help, I was hardly able to function. I would do basic things like clean out my mail and pay bills, but other than that, I would sleep all day and stay up all night. I went from a top student on a full scholarship to barely passing my classes.
I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety when I was 21 or 22. For nearly 18 years I have seen multiple psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists. I’ve done individual and group counselling. I have been off and on medications. This is sort of an invisible disability.
Did you find support from friends and faculty members?
Not at first. One friend responded, “But what can you be depressed about?” Many friends and colleagues didn’t understand where I was coming from or how I felt. And I feel, overall, many professors and principal investigators don’t take time to get to know a student or postdoc on a more personal level, particularly when it is a younger researcher of a different racial or cultural background. They just don’t care enough.
At Texas A&M, I’d be taking a class with 200 other students. Only two of us were Black. We’d sit next to each other. In my circles at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where I did my PhD, I saw more Black and brown people. But we’d still have obstacles.
During my first year at Vanderbilt, my father died after having heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I tried my best to manage, but sometimes felt kind of ostracized as a person of colour from a low-income background who’s part of the first generation in my family to go to university.
For example, I was in a study group with three other students, and we were working together on a written project. I offered to edit it before we submitted it. I sent them my edits, but one student fought me over each. Eventually, that student said, “Didn’t you have a death in your family — why don’t you just sit this one out?” That effectively shut me out of the project. I felt unsupported in my grief and completely disrespected.
How do you cope with mental-health challenges?
I have seen therapists and a psychiatrist, and have attended group sessions with eight or so graduate students. I have also joined the women’s support group Lean In, which has a chapter for postdocs at UT Southwestern. I really enjoy it. When you meet other women, and you start hearing their experiences and what they’re going through, you realize you’re not alone.
At first, especially as a Black person, you can feel embarrassed about getting help, thinking, “because I’m doing this, something’s wrong with me”. But that’s not true. A very good, smart doctor told me that going to counselling is like taking daily pills for high blood pressure. You’re taking care of yourself.
What suggestions do you have for early-career researchers with similar struggles?
They can take breaks, listen to music, read for leisure. I like to walk in the afternoon to buy tea. I read ‘fun’ articles about scientific topics I’m not working on. I take each week as it comes. I also take days off to rest at home and go to my medical appointments.
I always tell people they should try therapy, to at least try to talk to someone. They could talk with a dean of diversity or a dean of graduate studies. If their struggles are related to a marginalized identity, they could find a support group — for example, a local chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) or of oSTEM, an association for LGBTQ+ people in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) community. You’ll be meeting some of the top people who you could get advice from. The worst thing is to be closed off in a bubble, not talking to anyone.
In the past, I have thought of suicide and taken myself to a counselling centre. I am okay with going to those places, even with going to emergency hospital care. One of my therapists introduced me to the Stanley–Brown Safety Plan, which provides coping strategies and resources for people who have contemplated suicide. You can easily Google it and find it at suicidesafetyplan.com/forms/.
You’re also involved with the US National Black Postdoctoral Association. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The group started after the death in 2020 of George Floyd, the Black man who was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It now has nearly 500 members. I’m one of the board members. We’re very community-centric. We highlight our members on Twitter a lot — our accomplishments, publications, everything.
We also do outreach. As chair of the member-relations committee, I helped to survey our members, asking what types of group they want to be in, what grants they’ve got and what they need support with. About 16% of respondents, like me, reported that they are disabled or have a significant burden that affects their work, including depression and anxiety.
Last September, we launched a monthly Research and Social Seminar — two-hour Zoom sessions with one hour of research talks followed by a social hour. And we aim to launch more initiatives to support Black postdoctoral scholars, which will include addressing challenges that impact mental health.