Taking care of your mental health when your research makes the news, in a bad way.
Every day, disaster strikes around the world. Be it war, famine, forest fires, floods, droughts, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. As environmental scientists, the research we throw so much of our energy into (and hang so much of our self-worth on) has a way of coming back to bite humanity in the bum…this is undoubtedly why most of us choose these subjects. A desire to “make a difference” by chipping away at global problems to make a better future.
We know that humans compartmentalise, pushing things that are happening far away, or to people we don’t know to the backs of our minds as an act of self-preservation. It is not that we lack empathy, or don’t care (most of the time), it’s a way to survive when we have little/no power to help in that moment.
But what happens when a disaster strikes into which our research has given us a very specific insight?
It is much harder to ignore a devastating news story that links directly to your work or impacts a community/ place you know well. The phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” comes to mind… Except in this case, as PhD students we have very little power and almost zero real responsibility when it comes to responding to such events. We are cursed with the knowledge of exactly how bad it might get but no way to assist.
We environmental scientists are not alone, the same applies to historians, political theorists and medical experts. We’ve seen it time after time in the pandemic over the last 12 months…at least, anyone who spends as much time as I do on twitter has…
This particularly grim type of foresight couples with a feeling of impotence, which can cause a lot of anxiety.
For me, the source of that anxiety was/is a volcanic eruption on the island of St Vincent in the Caribbean. It started in late December with the formation of a small lava dome and culminated in a week of intense explosions that blanketed both St Vincent and Barbados in ash. The eruption is ongoing.
I visited the island in 2018 to take part in Volcano Awareness week, interacting with school children living close to the volcano and meeting members of the community who remembered the 1979 eruption (read about the trip and project here). So, when the news hit my twitter feed, I not only had a professional interest but an emotional connection to the people who would be affected. I also had the inside track to all the coverage and updates through my research and twitter network, not a great combination.
Upper left: view towards la Soufriere on St Vincent taken April 2018. Lower left, the Soufriere Blow exhibit recording cultural and historical records of past eruptions the culmination of the STREVA project, photos by Bridie Davies. Right: Explosive eruption of La Soufriere St Vincent in April 2021, photo by Richard Robertson of UWI SRC.
The anxiety and stress I experienced in the weeks around the first explosive eruptions is nothing in comparison to that felt by the communities living there. Or that of the heroic team from the Seismic Research Centre (SRC) of the University of the West Indies, who were there monitoring the activity and helping to make literal life and death decisions about evacuations, in the middle of a global pandemic*.
Nevertheless, this was the first time I had been even peripherally involved in an ongoing volcanic crisis (I was actually about to start analysing rocks from the lava dome alongside my supervisor to assist SRC when the first explosion happened), so I had to find ways to take care of myself.
Hopefully some of these things may be useful should your research ever draw you into coverage of a catastrophe…
Ask yourself “What practically can I do to help?” and do it.
A colleague with family on the island told me she was going to collect social media posts, videos, photos and news articles to keep a record of peoples’ responses to the eruption, the most effective routes of communication and help prevent spread of misinformation.
Since I was spending all my time scrolling twitter for updates anyway, I threw myself into helping her.
I was also due in the lab to continue the work I was doing on the early dome rocks, focussing my energies on careful data collection relevant to the eruption provided respite from some of the distressing images on social media but still felt “worthwhile”.
I found and shared official communications about the eruption, and places for people to donate**. Making sure only to amplify voices of those in the Caribbean with official information was vital. If you have expert knowledge, you probably know what those channels are, or how to find them. Spreading the correct information is a genuine way you can make a difference...even if it just means the Daily Fail journalist covering it gets the place name right!
Explosive eruption of La Soufriere St Vincent on the 13th April 2021, the anniversary of the 1979 eruption, the last explosive eruption on St Vincent before 2021. Photo by Richard Robertson, lead scientist on St Vincent at the time for UWI SRC.
Cut yourself some slack.
Working on my PhD and its 60,000 year old eruption just didn’t seem important when people’s livelihoods were at risk, so I didn’t even try for that first week. My supervisor understood and encouraged me to shift my focus (at the time of writing, she is in St Vincent assisting SRC).
It may not be possible to completely drop your PhD for a couple of weeks, if so, lower your expectations, take it slow and make sure you get a break.
Talk to your research network.
If you’re feeling the strain, it’s likely that your research colleagues are feeling it too. Reaching out in person and on twitter and chatting to other volcano PhD researchers helped me. When you know you’re sitting safe at home it can feel like your own distress isn’t valid. But if you’re upset then it’s just a sign you have empathy, telling someone about it isn’t being attention seeking. For all you know they have been feeling exactly the same and need an outlet too. You may even find new creative ways to offer assistance.
Know when it’s time to step back.
If you’ve done all you can to help and the powerlessness is feeling too much. Stop. Take a step back and stop engaging. Running yourself into the ground over it won’t help anyone and tuning out for a while doesn’t make you a bad person.
As researchers, we have a greater understanding than most of the long-term impacts these events can have. If you’re invested in the outcome its important to remember you’re in it for the long haul, use your energy accordingly. Harness your emotional response to drive yourself forward, in the hopes that next time, you might have a little more power/responsibility to play with.
*Less than 24 hours before the first explosion, on the advice of SRC, the Vincentian government ordered an evacuation of areas closest to the volcano. At the time of writing, no deaths have been recorded as a direct result of the eruption. This is quite frankly, a triumph of science, science communication and disaster management.
**Though the eruption has begun to fade from the news cycle, many people on St Vincent are yet to return to their homes, even if there are no more explosions they are still at risk from ash and mud flows as they head into the rainy season and many homes and crops have been destroyed.
The clean-up will take months and it will be expensive, if you’d like to donate to the relief effort you can do so here.