A little while ago Isis the Scientist posted a reader question about whether an academic trainee should broach mental illness issues with his or her PI. As Isis said, it is one heck of a question. To be honest, Isis alluded to the topic in an email prior to writing her post and I basically had no good suggestions.
Today, PalMD has posted a letter from another academic trainee who suffers from depression. I encourage you PIs in my audience to go over there and comment.
Some of the reasons I view this as an incredibly difficult situation are after the jump
It is not in the interest of any PI to have anything less than fully operational, brilliant, obsessed and dedicated trainees in the lab. Well, that's one way to look at it anyway. This would be the overt face of science and, according to PalMD's letter writer, the face of his or her training department. Tough love. If you can't hack it now, you aren't cut out for this career. Life's hard, do something else if you can't take the heat. There's some truth to this and, to some degree, legitimacy. After all, we make choices all the time about an individual's fitness for training in our labs and departments. Grad admission, training rotations, agreement on postdoctoral training...sure some of this is about "fit" and "interest". But much of the decision making is some sort of gaming over the potential success of the trainee. His or her ability.
Of course, we are probably pretty crappy at making more than the crudest discriminations, but still. Totally legitimate to, for example, exclude someone was not having the appropriate aptitude for the job. Right? Except...
Depression, drug addiction and other mental illnesses are just that, illnesses. Accident trauma, acquired illnesses, cancers...all decrease the productivity of the trainee. Do we discriminate against those that are injured or ill? Not so much. So what is our problem with the mental disorders whether they be developmental or (in some senses) acquired? Parity, stigma and ignorance. Being all well-edumacated folks we know* this is illness and biology and not a choice or lack of will.
Just because you know this intellectually doesn't mean you are going to be a good PI, however. It goes back to the reasons that people have such problem with the mental disorders in the first place. The human behavioral continuum is very smooth. Everyone gets a little depressed and a-motivated now and again. There is probably (I think and most people believe) such a thing as a lazy-ass or otherwise unmotivated employee for which the blame legitimately accrues to the individual. So where do we draw the line?
It is too damn risky to tell the PI. Tru.....ish. My take is that if depression is causing you to be nonfunctional you basically have a limited set of options
1) You muddle through fighting off your depression and being as productive as possible. The PI finds you to be no better or worse than average and things go reasonably well... I suppose it could happen. In fact I suspect it does happen quite a bit.
2) You suck and the PI thinks you are a wastrel trainee and things go badly for you.
3) You tell the PI, he/she is a mental disorder bigot and things go badly for you.
4) You tell the PI and s/he steps up, is as understanding as possible and things go....better?
These sorts of questions always make me think about my role as not just a mentor but as an employer/supervisor. Technicians are likely to have issues as well. I'd like to think that I am receptive and understanding. In the limited number of related situations that have come up, I think I've done okay and been reasonably supportive. But the thing is, you don't really know if you are giving off the vibe of "Don't come to me with your silly problems, get back to the bench!". Maybe the person who broached it with you is just really brave?
All you can do, my fellow PIs, is to try. To be aware. To think at least second if maybe that trainee who you are trying to motivate has clinically diagnosable issues. Probably better to be thought of as PI Hippy-dippy Touchy-feely than as Dr. Asshat.
In my estimation anyway.
*HAHAHAHAHAHAAAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ..oh, wait. that's not funny, that's sad. True though. PIs who are in the biological sciences have no excuse for not understanding mental illness. none.